The San Jose Earthquakes are not scoring a ton of goals this season, but they are not allowing very many either, and combined, those two factors have kept them above the red line in the Western Conference table and in line to gain a post season berth.
Goalkeeper David Bingham and the defense have claimed two clean sheets so far in 2015, the most recent an impressive 1-0 victory at the Houston Dynamo in the middle game of the team's recently completed three game road trip. In the Earthquakes last game at Avaya Stadium, they blanked the Vancouver Whitecaps by the same score.
San Jose has scored more than one goal in only two of its 10 games so far this season, and both of those games came back in March. However, the defense, despite dealing with a litany of injuries more suitable for an entire season, has given up more than one goal only three times. On the season, the Quakes have scored 10 goals and allowed 11.
So it shapes up to be a big test for the Earthquakes this Saturday when they host Columbus Crew SC and their potent attacking corps. The Crew have scored a league best 1.67 goals per game in 2015, 15 goals overall, and is led by the co-leader at the top of the MLS scoring chart in forward Kei Kamara. Columbus, like San Jose in the west, sits above the red line in the Eastern Conference with 14 points, same as the Quakes, and is captained by Argentine playmaker Federico Higuain.
"Higuain is key for them, he is a very good player," said Earthquakes head coach Dominic Kinnear. "He's a great passer of the ball and really seems to find his moments. He's good in tight spaces and dangerous in the open field. He's a person they look to a lot, and he is the one that makes them go from a dangerous team to a really dangerous team.
"We have to try to limit his touches if we can. It's tough too, because he is so effective at finding gaps in the field, and even when he doesn't have the ball, you have to watch out for him. He looking to get that through ball to Meram, Finlay, Kamara, and given too much time and space he will hit them more times than not."
While Kamara's exploits this season are well known -- he already has seven goals for the Crew and is tied with Seattle Sounders forward Clint Dempsey for the league lead -- the contributions from Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram have been somewhat shadowed. However, these two attackers are not filler in head coach Gregg Berhalter's starting line-up: Meram is well established at the international level with Iraq, and Finlay was recently voted MLS Player of the Week.
"If you look at the guys they have in Meram and Finlay that like to attack and try to exploit the space behind defenses," said Kinnear, "so it's nice to have guys that have played there before."
Kinnear will rely on the veteran leadership of Marvell Wynne and Jordan Stewart at the wide defender position to slow the Crew down. And combined with Clarence Goodson and Victor Bernardez at center back, the Earthquakes defense looks up to the challenge.
"We have to make sure to impose ourselves," said Stewart. "We are at home, and we have the players to do that, and I think if we do our job and the things we have been doing in training, then I don't see it being a problem. Obviously, they have a lot of threats. Their star player Higuain can undo defenses, but for us it's about getting us on the ball and getting it to our guys that can create something out of nothing. For myself and the other guys, it's about getting a clean sheet."
Securing a shutout will be made difficult by the presence of Kamara in the Crew lineup. The former Earthquakes forward -- he was on the roster to start the 2008 season prior to being traded to the Houston Dynamo that summer. Labeled in 2009 a "mental midget" by former Quakes defender Nick Garcia before the teams met up that season, Kamara has grown his game tremendously since then, and now has the smarts to go with his physical tools.
"He's a big, strong, powerful guy," said Kinnear. "Going through the middle, he does rely on service, but he also makes good runs. It's a situation where we have to put pressure on the guy trying to pass the ball and also make sure we have a body close to him. If he is in the open field, or is given time to gather momentum with his runs, he is a force."
Kamara played for Sporting Kansas City for parts of five seasons before making the move across the pond to play for Middlesbrough in the English Championship. He scored for goals for Boro before returning to MLS in 2014 and joining Columbus Crew SC -- the club at which he started his professional career back in 2006.
"He's tall and strong," said Stewart. "You know in MLS you are never going to get an easy game. But each opponent has its weaknesses as well. As a defender, that is what I try to find, to put my dominance on the game."
Stewart and the rest of the Earthquakes defensive crew will have their hands full with Columbus this Saturday, to be sure, but with a packed Avaya Stadium crowd behind them, the Quakes will look to spoil the visitor's trip to San Jose.