Four games into the MLS season, and the San Jose Earthquakes have already experienced the highs and lows, the frustration and the elation, the positives and the negatives of an entire 34-game schedule. Saturday, after slumping to their worst 45 minutes of soccer, the Quakes made a courageous comeback attempt, but came up just short in losing 2-1 at the New England Revolution.
Four games into the MLS season, and the Earthquakes have a 2-2-0 record -- already a third of the wins they collected all of last season. They claim third place in the Western Conference all for themselves, though they also are the only team in said conference to have suffered two losses this season. San Jose leads MLS with six goals scored; San Jose leads MLS with 6 goals allowed.
Looking for even more Dickensian themed thoughts from the weekend that was? Read on and enjoy a Tale of Three Takeaways from the Quakes loss to the Revs.
1) Playing soccer in a snow globe
There is not a single U.S. men's national team fan that doesn't look back to March 22, 2013 and the infamous Snow Game against Costa Rica without a smile. In nearly whiteout conditions, with everyone that had a shovel furiously clearing the field lines, the U.S. beat their Central American foe 1-0 in a World Cup qualifying match at snow-covered Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Colorado. The Ticos were displeased and asked FIFA to revoke the result. They refused, and the match that brought us the "Sno Fro" will forever live in U.S. Soccer history.
What does that all have to do with the Earthquakes game against the Revolution? Well, snow was falling in that game too, though not with the same ferocity, and the "Sno Fro" man himself Jermaine Jones was in the house, though not suited up and ready to play. These Quakes were no Costa Rica, not blaming the weather for the loss; instead, stating that it had nothing to do with the result.
"No. The field actually played pretty well," said Chris Wondolowski. "It was a little cold, but it was fine. Our mentality was off."
History shows us that teams that travel cross-country for away games in MLS tend to fare poorly. Call it a version of jet lag, or maybe it is the disruption of the regular pattern of the day's activities that being at home provides, but the Quakes looked more ready at the start of the game to curl up by a warm fireplace than to run around on a plastic pitch.
"It happens with turf and then cold weather and the snow," said head coach Dominic Kinnear. "These conditions are a little bit rare, but give them credit. They came out ready, we came out a little bit sleepy and that's why we were down 2-0 at halftime."
Playing too deep in the defensive third, giveaways on both wings by the outside backs, the inability to string together passes in the midfield -- San Jose was second best in nearly every statistical category save for possession and collecting the ball out of their own net. New England played against the Quakes in the first half like the Quakes played against the Seattle Sounders two weeks ago. Night and day.
A stern halftime talk -- and perhaps a round of hot toddies -- woke the Earthquakes from their malaise, and they did much better in the second half. The introduction of Adam Jahn as a true target forward helped tremendously, as it allowed Wondolowski to drop into a more withdrawn forward role (more on this in takeaway number 3), and the Quakes defenders stepped it up and initiating counterattacks on failed New England possessions. Even the snow flurries calmed down a bit in the match's second stanza. It was as good a 45 minutes of soccer for the Quakes this season as the first half was bad.
"Yeah, our offensive strategy was to wake up," said Wondolowski. "It's no excuse, but I think we let the elements and... We didn't come ready. We dug ourselves in a hole and we knew at halftime we had to wake up and play how we can and I think we showed glimpses of it in the second half. Better, not good enough, but a little better."
Wondolowski did get a goal back for San Jose from the penalty spot, but the Winter of the Earthquakes Discontent left them a goal short in their comeback. The trip home to the Bay Area, and sunny Avaya Stadium, couldn't come soon enough.
"We fought hard to get back into the game," said Kinnear, "and then obviously the chance at the end would have been great for us. Unfortunately we couldn't capitalize on it."
2) Shaking off more than the snow
A very scary moment in the game came in the 80th minute when Earthquakes goalkeeper David Bingham collided with Clarence Goodson as both tried to reach a Revolution cross into the area. In the video replay, Goodson appears to hit Bingham square in the side of the head, and the goalkeeper crumples to the turf and remains motionless for a few seconds. He eventually shook it off and got to his feet, but his wobbly walk to the goalpost did not inspire confidence that he would be able to continue in the game.
It sure looked like the kind of hit to the head that can result in a concussion.
But Bingham waved off additional treatment and, probably to the relief of Kinnear, who had already used all three of his substitutions by that point in the match, stepped back in between the posts as if nothing happened. After the game, Kinnear addressed the incident and the possibility that Bingham had suffered any ill-effects from the collision with a simple dismissal.
Kinnear was asked if he had still had his third sub in hand, would he have removed Bingham. Answer: "No, because he's OK."— Geoff Lepper (@quakesbeat) March 28, 2015
Perhaps Kinnear had more to add, and maybe over the course of the next few days we'll know more about any lingering effects from the collision, but for now, "he's OK" is the only evaluation we have. The incident raised a flurry of discussion regarding MLS and its current concussion protocol -- should the league increase its in-game testing for concussions, and could the league adopt a special substitution rule for players that need to exit the game for evaluation and treatment?
The bottom line when it comes to head injuries is that players, coaches, and officials should be trained to err on the side of caution. Already, the referee has the responsibility to stop a game if a suspected head injury occurs so that trainers can attend to the fallen player. It is a good first step in protecting players -- perhaps from their own competitive fire -- who need attention but more can be done.
MLS has worked to introduce innovations to the game before. Establishing a comprehensive concussion protocol would be a major undertaking, likely requiring the cooperation of FIFA, but it would arguably be one of the league's major accomplishments if it comes to be.
3) Great DP Expectations
The willingness of the Earthquakes organization to sign three designated players is well worth celebrating for fans of the club, and at times this season, when all three were on the field together, the combination of Wondolowski, Innocent Emeghara, and Matias Perez Garcia has looked formidable on the attack.
That was not always the case against New England.
In the first half, when the Revolution were the more aggressive team and pinned the Earthquakes down in their own side of the center line, the DP trio were often left out to dry. And even when they did get possession, it seemed more often than not that they were so spread out that New England's defenders were readily able to snuff out any attacking runs. There was no relief in the center of the park to reset possession, so it was left to the Quakes to take on the Revs, often one-on-many, and give back the ball.
Kinnear had discussed earlier in the week the dilemma he faces with the three big-money players on the roster. First, Kinnear is essentially playing Emeghara out of position as a wide player, rather than as the true forward he best represents, in order to get his best players in the starting line-up.
"For the team right now and to try to get the three DPs on the field at the same time, that is what me and my staff feel is the best formation," said Kinnear. "Is it playing 100% to his strengths? Probably not. But to get these guys on the field and to have them in the right formation, that is where we are at right now.
"In saying that, he is doing pretty well and getting more time on the ball out there than he would if he were playing center forward. Now that is not by design. It is just the way the games worked out. If you ask Innocent, he'd probably say that he wants to play center forward, but right now this is what's best for the team."
Emeghara, to his credit, has said all the right things so far, agreeing to play out of position and making the most of his opportunities from the wing. He has seen a lot of the ball in the Earthquakes first four games, and he lead the team in duels entered and duels won. Emeghara is a forward that likes to stretch defenses, so limiting him to just the left side of the field is a trade-off that Kinnear is willing to make.
Perez Garcia seems most comfortable starting out on the right and cutting in on his left, but he has been tasked as more of a sideline to sideline forward/midfielder. He tends to stay more to the right side because Emeghara dominates the left flank, somewhat limiting his involvement on the ball and positioning off the ball.
Wondolowski has played more as a advanced forward to start the season, trying to provide a target for outlet passes and working his tail off to hold up the ball when it comes his way. This is not his best role -- he looked more comfortable facing the goal as a second line attacker -- and when Adam Jahn entered the game at halftime against the Revs, it pushed Wondolowski into a more familiar position, and the Quakes played much better soccer in the second half.
"Yeah, I dropped a little in the midfield, kind of side-by-side with Matias," said Wondolowski. "I got to cover a little more ground, but I was able to kind of make some runs out of midfield. I think that helped settle things down and connect some passes. I thought Adam did a great job of battling and posting up and being a target forward and that helped us keep the ball a bit."
With Steven Lenhart still out for the Earthquakes -- and no timetable given for his return -- Jahn is the only option on the team at target forward. That San Jose often looks better when he is on the field is likely to due to a number of reasons -- late game tactical changes top the list -- but may not warrant a new starting eleven and modified formation. Kinnear hinted that changes could be made, but those would only come about due to injuries or suspensions to his preferred starters.
Three DPs looks great on paper, but the trio is still adjusting to time together on the field.