A week ago, the story was how consistency in the San Jose Earthquakes lineup was helping the team build its chemistry on the field. For three games to start the 2018 Major League Soccer season, the Quakes featured the same starting eleven.
Following a season opening 3-2 win over Minnesota United, however, San Jose dropped its next two games, and head coach Mikael Stahre promised that there would be some changes ahead of the fourth game of the year: an away game against the Philadelphia Union.
True to his word, Stahre started MLS newcomer Joel Qwiberg at left back in place of veteran Shea Salinas — it was his only change to the starting lineup — and the Quakes survived an early Union attack to take a one goal lead.
At halftime, Stahre modified the formation, dropping Florian Jungwirth from midfield into the centerback line and lining up as a 5-4-1 in order to protect the lead. It put the defense under even more pressure to withstand the hosts, and they capitulated 15 minutes in when Alejandro Bedoya scored the equalizer in what ended up a 1-1 result.
It was nearly a solid weekend outing for the Quakes, as Stahre showed his willingness and ability to shift the team’s tactical focus in dramatic fashion during the course of the game. However, the result was tainted by a late red card earned by Harold Cummings for violent conduct on Union defender Auston Trusty. The Panamanian will now miss the Quakes next game, a home tilt this Saturday night against the Houston Dynamo, forcing Stahre to make at least one lineup change; perhaps a change he had not anticipated.
Cummings and centerback partner Yeferson Quintana had, in four starts together, looked better with his performance. Both defenders have yet to show much consistency in distributing the ball out of the back — compounded by goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell’s inconsistency in that effort — but they have displayed improved teamwork, notably, in their ability to anticipate each other’s positioning.
The Cummings and Quintana partnership is new this season, and it was expected it would take the first months of the season for them to bond as a duo. At least for this weekend, that partnership will be put on hold as Cummings serves a one game suspension. With the centerback expected to be called into Panama’s national team ahead of this summer’s World Cup, finding a lineup combination that works without Cummings was always going to be a challenge for Stahre.
The replacements for Cummings on the depth chart include natural centerbacks Francois Affolter and Jimmy Ockford. The former hasn’t played a minute yet this season while the latter was an emergency substitute in the season opener when Quintana had to leave with an ankle injury.
Affolter was ill for the game against Minnesota and did not make the matchday 18, but he’s the likely first centerback off the bench. If Stahre wants to start the game against Houston with the same 4-4-2 he has featured in prior games, then Affolter seems the likely partner to Quintana.
But the Dynamo offense, one built around a three-forward attack and plenty of speed, would be a challenging assignment for Affolter and Quintana, neither of who has shown great recovery speed in chasing down opposing players in the open field. Nick Lima on the right and, perhaps, the reintroduction of Shea Salinas on the left could provide more pace on the back line, but those full backs are too often tasked with getting involved in the Quakes offense. That is a lot of ground to cover if they are asked to do both.
Beyond the two backup centerbacks are Florian Jungwirth and Fatai Alashe, both of whom have played in the defense for the Quakes in the past. Jungwirth, most notably, was the team’s Defensive Player of the Year last season as a centerback. He dropped into that role nominally against Philadelphia — he was more of a sweeper between Cummings and Quintana — and is a proven quantity. It’s been awhile since Alashe played centerback, so he is the least likely replacement at that position in the Panamanian’s stead.
Houston is not a very good road team, having registered only one win away from BBVA Compass Stadium since the start of the 2017 season, preferring to cede possession to opponents and strike on the counterattack. That same game plan was employed by Minnesota United in the Quakes home opener, and San Jose’s total team effort to press the Loons and rotate possession through the attackers and midfielders was successful.
But the Dynamo forwards are step up from Minnesota’s, as Alberth Elis, Andrew Wenger, and Mauro Manotas are a formidable trio when they are running at opposing defenses. Elis, especially, will be a challenge on the wing. Qwiberg or Salinas — whoever earns the start at left back — will certainly be tested.
If the Earthquakes exchange like for like, then Affolter will get his first start of 2018. It would allow Stahre to keep the same formation and tactics in play that did so well against Minnesota and, at time, against New York City FC a few weeks back. But if the MLS rookie coach wants to expand on his second half Philly formation, bolstering the center of the defense and limiting Houston’s possession in midfield, then he likely drops Jungwirth into the back line.
Such a move requires another decision for Stahre: who takes Jungwirth’s place in midfield? Anibal Godoy is going to start centrally; he has proven to be a difference maker as a box-to-box player, while Jungwirth stayed back more and provided defensive cover. If Stahre wants to keep the tactics consistent, he brings Alashe in for Jungwirth. The fourth year player has already made three appearances this season, all off the bench, and he knows the defensive midfielder role well.
Another more radical option is to have Godoy play more defensively and pair him with Jackson Yueill, Tommy Thompson, or even Vako as a central midfielder. Yueill has seen the field once this year after showing great promise last season in his rookie campaign. He might be too much a carbon copy of Godoy, however, and the two on the field together may not provide balance in the midfield. Thompson, an afterthought for Stahre in 2018, provides a better catalyst in attack and could thrive in an advanced midfield role. Starting Vako with Godoy as more of a diamond midfield, gets Thompson or Jahmir Hyka on the field as a winger.
The Quakes certainly have depth on the roster, and Saturday against the Dynamo, it will get tested for the first time this season. Stahre has a tough task ahead of him preparing for the loss of Cummings, but, if his adjustments against Philadelphia were indicative, he has the know how to find the right combination in the lineup and formation.