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How the San Jose Earthquakes can beat Sporting Kansas City

It’s a familiar script, against an unfamiliar opponent.

MLS: San Jose Earthquakes at Sporting Kansas City Peter G. Aiken

The San Jose Earthquakes have an uphill battle in their playoff game Sunday, as they are set to take on Sporting Kansas City in Kansas City. The Quakes are the No. 8 seed, Sporting the No. 1 seed, so in the eyes of the rest of MLS, San Jose are huge underdogs.

But we know this team never says die, and they aren’t entering this game to just make up the numbers. How can they spring the upset and beat Sporting? The Quakes need to play their game, and here’s what they need to do to get it done.

All of the energy

Interestingly, Sporting were one of the first teams to really press in the past decade and have intermittently made breakneck energy one of their trademarks.

But San Jose remain a team that can overwhelm opponents, in the first minute or the 90th, with sheer energy. It is the purest distillation of using grit to beat the opposition, and we’ve seen the Earthquakes accomplish that many times under Matias Almeyda.

Conversely, if San Jose can’t ramp their energy up to outwork Sporting, they’re toast. They aren’t meant to sit deep and make a deliberate approach in the game. They have to play smart throughout, but they can’t let their intensity drop, especially because Sporting are better suited than most teams to punish them if they do.

Smart defense

One of the changes that turned around the Earthquakes’ season earlier this year was the team making some tactical tweaks in defense and in triggering their press. By and large, those adjustments have been rather subtle, but Almeyda has eventually adjusted to better keep an eye on what was happening in defense than he originally introduced to the team.

While the Earthquakes are still vulnerable to letting in a glut of goals — the Decision Day loss to the Seattle Sounders has to be a major wake-up call — they found a balance in their turnaround this season. They are capable of going hell for leather all over the field but they aim to not put players in as many situations where they can make a mistake and have it all fall apart. Against the Sounders, that’s what happened, so the players have to step up, but the defense is more sound now, too.

Sporting can score in a number of ways, so San Jose will have to be really alert in all facets of the game, whether it’s a set piece, in transition, with SKC holding possession, you name it. As long as the Quakes are smart in defense and avoid mistakes, they can stay in the game.

Volume and precision in attack

This will sound like a contradiction, but the Earthquakes will need to attempt two approaches in their attack. First, they should try to attack early and often, with a high-volume approach to shots constantly testing Sporting’s defense and goalkeeper. We know that when San Jose does this, they’ll have a slew of wayward and low-percentage shots, but when they get in a rhythm in attack like this, they often find a way to get two or three goals.

Failing that, or perhaps in tandem, the Quakes also need to have some precision in attack. What I mean is that on set pieces, find a way to take advantage, or if there is a promising counterattack, don’t waste that chance. It’s more likely Sporting will try to hold onto the ball as much as possible, and in that case, San Jose’s chances will probably be pretty limited. They may not get 15 shots, and may have to be clinical on the few looks they do get. So ideally shoot a lot to improve the odds, but also make sure the high-percentage chances make it into the net. Easier said than done but that’s the goal.

Whether they want to believe it or not, the Earthquakes are playing with house money on Sunday. They don’t have the pressure on them, and they’re used to people counting them out and proving them wrong. The playoff game against Sporting certainly won’t be easy, but if San Jose play their style of soccer and force Sporting to play the game on their terms, it will be a game for the taking and who knows what can happen.

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