San Jose Earthquakes head coach Matias Almeyda was much more lighthearted than his usual even keel in his pregame availability with reporters Thursday, but it’s time to get serious as the San Jose Earthquakes will face Minnesota United in the MLS is Back Tournament quarterfinals Saturday evening.
Ahead of the match, here’s what we’re watching for from an Earthquakes perspective:
Momentum vs. history
San Jose haven’t beaten Minnesota under Almeyda. But the Quakes have gotten substantially better each game in the bubble so far. So what gives?
The Quakes had to wait nearly four months to play again after getting thrashed 5-2 by the Loons in March, a game that looked like Almeyda may not have all the answers after an offseason in which there was virtually no turnover.
I wouldn’t be altogether shocked if the Quakes have a tough match in this one, because perhaps Minnesota will be a tough matchup for them. It happens all the time, some teams just prove to be trickier than others.
But while both teams are unbeaten so far in Orlando, Minnesota’s road has been rockier — they beat Sporting Kansas City in the last minute to open their group stage, then played a turgid scoreless draw against Real Salt Lake and a slightly better draw against the Colorado Rapids. Then they won a penalty shootout against Columbus Crew SC in the Round of 16 to advance.
So on form, San Jose are in better shape, and they are slight favorites for this game. I wouldn’t be surprised if they come out and look great again, too. But I think this is a sample size question, and with another 90 minutes we’ll see if the time is right or Minnesota are just too much right now.
One thing to watch at this stage in the tournament is how players are doing with fatigue. Almeyda has essentially a set starting XI at this point, and brings on usually the same substitutes. He’s been making use of all five of his allowed subs these days, which could help, but other teams that have reached the knockout stage — the likes of Sporting Kansas City, Seattle Sounders and LAFC — have looked totally out of gas as they’ve gotten bounced from the tournament.
Will the Quakes hit a wall in this game? I do think it’s possible this team can sustain the perfect balance of fitness throughout a short tournament like this, but with the grueling physical demands of Almeyda’s style of play, it’s worth wondering if they can continue to go hell for leather or if the wheels will fall off in this game.
No Ike (Opara)
Usually I focus on the Quakes in this column, but I really think Minnesota being without Ike Opara for this tournament evens up the field a bit between these teams. Don’t forget, Opara, the reigning MLS Defender of the Year, scored a brace against the Quakes in March, and his set piece ability in the box really paved the way for Minnesota’s romp. Opara was a worthy top defender, too, and while the Loons haven’t been a shambles in the back, there’s no question their defensive corps has taken a step down without him. Now, it’s up to San Jose to shoot the daylights out and post some goals to make Minnesota pay for the absence of their defensive star.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.