The San Jose Earthquakes are feeling pretty good about themselves three games into the 2015 season. Already with a third of their win total from 2014 -- the Quakes have defeated last year's Supporters' Shield winners Seattle Sounders on the road and opened their new home Avaya Stadium with a big win against the Chicago Fire -- the team will be aiming to win their third straight game for the first time since the tail end of 2013.
But it wont be easy, not against the defending Eastern Conference champions New England Revolution on their home turf at Gillette Stadium in Foxoborough (kick-off is at noon Pacific and is available to watch on TV and online).
The heartbeat of the Revolution is midfielder Lee Nguyen, who last season nearly won the league's MVP award with stellar performances and career highs in goals and assists. New England will be missing U.S. international Jermaine Jones as Nguyen's midfield partner, but that will not lessen the task at hand for the Earthquakes, notably JJ Koval and Jean-Baptsite Pierazzi in the visitor's center midfielder pairing.
"We are going to have to a better job in the midfield of winning the ball and starting the attack," said Koval about the match-up with the Revs. "J-B is very good at that. We are also going to make sure we have our heads on straight when it comes to defense, plugging up holes so their midfielders are not running through us. We want to make sure that is not happening. That is our job."
Koval was paired with rookie Fatai Alashe in the last two Earthquakes games -- both wins -- but he will have a new partner in Pierazzi to work with against the Revs while Alashe is away on international duty with the U.S. U-23 men's national team. The change does not affect the way Koval prepares for Saturday's game, however, as Pierazzi represents a similar player to Alashe.
"He's a very good player," said Koval. "He brings a lot of experience to the team. It's always a pleasure to play alongside of him. He's steady and calm with the ball at his feet. I enjoy playing next to him a lot."
Head coach Dominic Kinnear is very aware of the problems associated with making changes to a winning formula, but that doesn't mean he has any less confidence in what Koval can do partnered with the Frenchman.
"No, you don't want to change things up," said Kinnear. "One guy out and one guy in, they play the same position, maybe a little bit differently, but it doesn't change JJ's role at all."
Against Chicago, Koval was instrumental on set pieces, getting a head to the initial corner kick delivery that resulted in Alashe's fifth minute goal. On the defensive side of the ball, Koval had a bit more difficulty against the Fire, and the Earthquakes midfield yielded a lot of space to their opponent.
"He has to know his role in there," said Kinnear. In the preseason, he was doing a good job of making late runs into the box. A lot of times, teams will have trouble picking up a late runner coming from deep. For him, it is to keep it simple, don't try to do too much, keep possession, and try to get his head on a couple things. He did very well in the preseason, keeping his role simple.
"You don't always have to be a part of the build-up, you can be the end of the build-up."
Koval recognizes that against Chicago, the team eased up a bit with a one-goal lead and was content to absorb the Fire's attacks and keep them out of their defensive box. It worked very effectively -- Chicago did not register a single shot on goal in the second half -- but it might not get the job done against a determined opponent like New England on their home field.
"Going forward, we want to be dominate from the first minute to the 90th minute, and have the better of the chances the entire time," said Koval. "It's not always going to happen that way, but we plan to keep pushing for it."
With Pierazzi as his partner and with his coach keeping the game plan simple, Koval will have his opportunity to direct the Earthquakes to their third consecutive victory on Saturday.