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San Jose Earthquakes visit DC United: Four nothing

Quakes brutal road form continues in blowout loss to last-place DC United

MLS: San Jose Earthquakes at D.C. United
The Quakes need to rise up if they want to make the 2017 MLS Cup playoffs
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

So far in 2017, the San Jose Earthquakes are much like an old-school light switch: the only two settings are “On” and “Off.” Last week’s strong 1-0 win at home against the Houston Dynamo was brightly encouraging, but this weekend’s dismal 4-0 loss at D.C. United — the Eastern Conference last-place, Wooden Spoon contenders — was a dimmer on the Quakes playoffs hopes. Is there light at the end of the MLS regular season for San Jose’s postseason chase?

The Earthquakes, despite their capitulation in the nation’s capital, sit in sixth place in the West and would be the last team in the MLS Cup playoffs if they were to start now. San Jose has four games left — three at home sweet home — to keep itself in the top-six, and most odds-makers will say that earning nine of nine available points at Avaya Stadium will get job done. These on-and-off Quakes just might make that happen. Even a blowout loss at Vancouver on the season’s penultimate weekend — San Jose’s last road game — may matter little. The Earthquakes have work to do at home, starting this Wednesday against the Chicago Fire.

"It hurts, but there's a lot of home games left for us and we've been great at home,” said Tommy Thompson following the loss at D.C. United. “We're going to have a short memory about this and maximize points and hopefully this will be a distant memory when we make the playoffs at the end of the year."

The life of an athlete does often require a short memory, but there are still some observations from Saturday’s 4-0 loss that are illuminating when it comes to these Quakes.

Eleven playing as anything but one

Famously spanning the length of the players’ entrance to the locker room facility is a saying first coined by Frank Yallop and adopted whole-heartedly by Dominic Kinnear: “Eleven Playing As One.” The former San Jose head coaches preached a philosophy that asked everyone on the field to work cohesively and create a unit that was greater than its parts. It was a pragmatic style, to be sure, but it was often effective for a Quakes team that was not stacked with a plethora of high-priced stars.

Kinnear maintained that attitude to start the 2017 season, even as new general manager Jesse Fioranelli and technical director Chris Leitch stacked the roster with young international players that, on paper, looked like solid upgrades at every position. The low-scoring Quakes seemed ready to break that spell of offensive mediocrity, but for half a season, they couldn’t, and Kinnear was fired, even after keeping the team in position to qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2012.

Leitch was instilled as the new head coach — no interim label affixed — and the Quakes second half of the season sees them... in the same position to qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2012. But the team does, at times, look a lot different on the field. Leitch installed a more aggressive 3-5-2 formation from the get-go, stating that he knew it would take time for the players to adjust from the more familiar 4-4-2 played under Kinnear, but adding that the changes would pay off as the season progressed.

An thrilling comeback win over the LA Galaxy at Stanford in his MLS debut gave Leitch immediate gratification on his tactical adjustments, and a compelling run to the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup provided further validation, but some shocking road results — one-sided losses at the New York Red Bulls, Seattle Sounders, and Real Salt Lake — snuffed out the elation surrounding the attack-minded formation, and Leitch coached to the team’s strength and returned to a back-four based line-up. An away way at the StubHub Center — everyone wins at LA this season — came as a result.

Leitch employed a 4-4-2 against the Dynamo in San Jose’s next home game, and the team grinded out an effective 1-0 win and three points in the standings. Pickers of nits might call the formation a 4-2-4 — it did have forwards Danny Hoesen and Vako ostensibly playing as midfield wingers — but it was set up with more focus on taking care of the ball in the defending half of the field. The continuity between the back line and front four was there most of the game against Houston. There were some lapses in cohesion, but the match never seemed out of the team’s control.

Against D.C. United, the rookie head coach sent out the exact same Starting XI, and, for one half of soccer, it looked okay. The defensive four looked like they were building a good understanding of how to hold their line and limit D.C.’s forays into the attacking third. However, four playing as one masked the lack of connection with the rest of the formation. Jackson Yueill and Florian Jungwirth manned the middle, but they only managed to muddle possession for the Quakes. Hoesen and Vako on the wings played on islands at times, appearing to be oblivious to having teammates that could help them in attack. Chris Wondolowski was left as a spectator to much of the action. Shots on goal were nonexistent.

The coaching staff and the players are both, as groups, still adjusting to the changes Leitch wants to implement. Sure, they all have the same goal — Playoffs! -- nonetheless, it’s proving to be a challenge to get everyone on the same page in the effort.

There’s no masking a midfield faulty fulcrum

For everything Jungwirth and Yueill did right against the Dyanmo, they did the opposite against D.C. United, and as the game progressed, the cellar dwelling home side took advantage. Flo and Jackson were too often overrun in the first 20 minutes of the second half, and in the blink of an eye, Patrick Mullins, he of no goals so far in the 2017 campaign, had a hat-trick. Possession was all United in those minutes, and whether it was a lack of fitness on the part of the Quakes or tactical adjustments from Ben Olsen, it put San Jose back into a familiar position — getting dominated in the second half on the road.

In Leitch’s 4-4-2, or 4-2-4, formation, the two central midfielders have to be of one mind to make it successful. Instead, Jungwirth looked tired and Yueill looked out of place. Both are not entirely to blame for the meltdown — the Earthquake have allowed 27 goals in seven road games since Leitch, a former MLS defender, took over as head coach — as the back line had its foibles as well in gifting Mullins MLS Player of the Week honors. Anibal Godoy came in for the flagging Flo, but the waters were already choppy, and the boat was never really righted, and Mullins’ fourth goal of the game sealed the deal late.

Jungwirth and Yueill from last weekend to this were the epitome of the Earthquakes “On” or “Off” character.

Best case scenario: One and done?

Despite getting stuck in the D.C. swamp on Saturday, results elsewhere in the West allowed the Earthquakes to stay above the playoffs line. And as mentioned earlier, the Quakes have only one more road game to deal with in 2017. According to the website Sports Club Stats, if San Jose wins all three remaining home games — Chicago Fire, Portland Timbers, and Minnesota United — it has 93.7% chance of making the playoffs. Given the Quakes home record of 8-1-5 so far in 2017, that feat is entirely plausible. And if, somehow, they can earn a point on the road at Vancouver, the odds improve to 98.6%.

The West is weaker this season as compared to past years, and 47 points, instead of the typical 50 points, looks like it will be the cutoff between the early vacationers and the MLS Cup hopefuls. San Jose is currently at 39 points — tied with Houston and one point ahead of FC Dallas, each of which has a game in hand on the Quakes — so a nine from nine available Avaya Stadium run to close out the season clears the hurdle for the postseason. The odds look good that playoff soccer will return to San Jose.

Well, technically, that’s not true. The structure of the MLS Cup playoffs is that the teams ranked three through six in each conference compete in the Play-in round to create, along with the top two finishers, a final four. Teams #3 and #4 host #6 and #5 respectively in a winner-take-all single game at the home of the higher seed. Only winning all four remaining games, including at the first-place Whitecaps, would give San Jose a greater than 50% chance of finishing in the Western Conference top four. In the Leitch era, unless your name is the Galaxy, you can be rest assured of an easy win against the Earthquakes.

Overall in 2017, the Quakes are 3-12-1 away from Avaya Stadium. Their goal differential is -28 on the road, -24 since Leitch took over. In fact, of the 27 goals scored against San Jose away from home in the second half of the season, 24 have come in the second half, including all four of Mullins’ record-setting goals Saturday night. No player in MLS history had notched four goals in a single half until those fateful 45 minutes in Washington D.C.

It must be a combination of factors that the Earthquakes get toasted in the second half on the road. The weariness of traveling, the lack of tactical adjustments by the coaching staff, the flagging determination to stay in games after the first goal goes in — these all together play a role in the Quakes woeful away form. So if San Jose does make the playoffs, likely as a #5 or #6 seed, something dramatically different will be necessary if the hometown faithful are going to see a playoff game in person.

So instead of dismissing the game at Vancouver as unnecessary to the Quakes postseason chase, the team needs to treat it as a dress rehearsal for what is likely to come — an elimination game on the road with the season on the line. It is imperative that everyone must play their part against the Whitecaps, especially if there is any desire to still be playing soccer in November. And with a win, perhaps, that play-in round game is at Avaya Stadium — well worth effort. A victory in Vancouver would be a statement game in this on-and-off season that would put the rest of the league on notice that the floodlights in San Jose are shining at full capacity.