Sometimes you have to really land hard to figure things out. Both D.C. United and the San Jose Earthquakes had stellar 2012 seasons followed by debacles in 2013. Of course, there are debacles and there are debacles. The Quakes only finished with 15 fewer points from their Supporters Shield-winning 2012 performance; United entered the argument for having the worst season in MLS history.
Both clubs made big changes: United retained its decision-makers and remade the roster, while San Jose opted to ditch head coach Frank Yallop and retained nearly all of the core group of players from 2012. During the offseason, the Quakes likely were expected to be the better team, especially after Mark Watson's tenure started with a late charge for a playoff spot while United was relying on castoffs from the Re-Entry Process mid-table teams.
And that's why offseason predictions should not be something one spends too much time on. United has found consistency far earlier than expected and has gotten an MVP-caliber season out of Fabian Espindola en route to being in first place in the East halfway through the year. The Quakes, meanwhile, are at the bottom of the Western Conference and are the only team in MLS that averages less than one goal per game.
Of course, their scoring woes are a bit misleading for our purposes. The Quakes have only managed four goals in their seven road games, which is just dreadful. This game isn't at RFK, though, so we have to deal with a side that has put up eleven goals in nine home games. That's not great by any means, and it's inflated by a 3-0 win over the hapless Houston Dynamo, but it's still no wonder that Ben Olsen referred to this as a trap game. Any trip to Buck Shaw's tight confines to take on the physically aggressive Earthquakes is a tough one, just like any cross-country trip to play a team along the Pacific coast is going to be difficult. It's worth noting that, before a 2011 win in this fixture, United hadn't gone to the Bay Area and returned with three points since 1998. 1998!
It's also worth pointing out that the Quakes, for all their troubles, are a tough nut to crack. Even while dealing with a revolving door central midfield, injuries across the back four, and the absence of Victor Bernardez due to Honduran World Cup duty, San Jose is keeping opponents to one goal per game on the season. If anything, they're almost bizarrely consistent in that department: In each of their last six games across both MLS and Open Cup play, the team playing the Quakes has scored precisely one goal. First goal wins? It could well be a game like that.
In terms of formation, the Quakes mostly stick with a 442. They did play a 4411 against the LA Galaxy a couple of weeks ago, but that was likely down to the game being a "home" match on a field with more normal dimensions than the Thunderdome that is Buck Shaw. With Chris Wondolowski back in the fold and Steven Lenhart not injured, anything other than a 442 would be a big surprise (says Jason as he thinks back to TFC's 4231 ambush last week):
The question marks are really just in the midfield, which makes sense since San Jose's lack of goals mostly stems from their struggle to create opportunities from open play. On the right, Cordell Cato gets more of the starts than Atiba Harris. Cato offers more speed and direct running, but he's still a pretty raw young prospect whose game lacks anything approaching nuance. Harris is probably more likely to score a goal, but without Cato's speed the Quakes lose their only true north-south threat.
On the other side, the Quakes probably won't be able to call on Shea Salinas, their other speedy winger. The Quakes were discussing the (low) possibility of the issue requiring a surgical procedure last month, so it's hard to see him being fit enough to start even after a couple weeks off. As such, San Jose will probably shift Yannick Djalo - their alleged big offseason signing - out to the left. He's perfectly comfortable out there, and has some outstanding technical ability, but up to this point he's had big problems adapting to MLS. When he's been fit enough to play, Djalo seems to be on a different page from his teammates, but he does still possess the pure skill on the ball to create a goal out of nothing.
Centrally, Khari Stephenson has pushed his way into a starting role due to being the only central midfielder on San Jose's roster with any history of creating offense. His partner will likely be one of either Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi or Sam Cronin. Pierazzi was another supposedly big offseason acquisition, but the Quakes seem to have made the same mistake with him that United did with Dax McCarty; both are defensive midfielders that were wrongly assumed to have the ability to function in a more creative role.
When it comes to how these teams like to play, United is actually pretty well-suited to dealing with San Jose. The narrow nature of the Black-and-Red's midfield will make the transition to playing at Buck Shaw an easier transition than most other teams have dealt with. Moreover, the Quakes are built around winning knockdowns by Steven Lenhart. Between Bobby Boswell and Steve Birnbaum - who will likely be up for this one given that it's kinda-sorta a homecoming for him - United should be comfortable with stopping Lenhart from having much say in where those loose balls fall.
The other side of fighting off this strategy is simple hard work and determination. The Quakes are, if nothing else, a group that prizes work rate and fight at home. Winning those knockdowns is a product of anticipation and chemistry, to be sure, but it also heavily involves good old fashioned willpower. United has to match or exceed San Jose's desire to battle for every 50/50 ball, or the Quakes will get to play the game they prefer.
The other worry United will have defensively is defending 1v1 down both flanks. Sean Franklin is far more athletic than Djalo, but Djalo's ability to pull rabbits out of his hat might make this a moot point. Nick DeLeon is going to have to put in his customary hard work defensively to minimize the number of times Franklin is isolated. Generally speaking, Djalo has shrunk away from the games in which he's constantly being harassed and doesn't get the one-on-one opportunities he loves.
On the other side, the challenge is a bit different. Cato isn't afraid to pull out a stepover, but more often than not he only goes for a move or a feint when he's not sprinting. That's a good sign that he won't be getting around his man, because he's far more dangerous at full speed. Chris Korb gets less help from Rolfe than Franklin does from DeLeon, so in this case Korb needs to be ready to win some tackles while isolated. He'd also be wise to either play very tight against Cato to prevent him from getting up to full speed. In the event that Korb can't arrive in time for that sort of marking, he'll have to concede space wide in order to cut off any avenues to enter the box on the run.
Going forward, United needs to be successful between the lines. San Jose's flat 442 has left them with some issues between their holding midfielders and the center backs in terms of protecting zone 14. Berdardez's return helps in that regard, as he's confident stepping ahead of the rest of the back four, but it's much easier to defend that area of the field from the midfield than by temporarily breaking up your defense.
The Black-and-Red will need players making unexpected runs into this area of the field. The good news is that, in Chris Rolfe, we have someone perfectly suited to exploit this particular weakness. Luis Silva, if he gets another start, should see a few opportunities to shoot from long range in space as well. If these two can come up with big games, United should be well on their way to a good result.
Eddie Johnson might be in for a good performance as well, but United needs to make sure to use him in the right areas. If EJ is going to be fed a diet of through balls in behind the defense, these need to be played when Johnson is running off the shoulder of Clarence Goodson rather than Bernardez, who despite his hulking frame has legitimate recovery speed. Goodson is very good at anticipating this sort of thing, but he needs help from the midfield in preventing the pass from ever happening. In the middle third - particularly just inside their own half - United needs everyone picking their head up and looking for EJ running the channel between Goodson and Jordan Stewart.
It's a bit of a shame Christian has gone back to Spain, as his overlapping runs would be a good way to break things open against Brandon Barklage at right back. We all know Barklage gets pumped up to face the club that drafted him, but the fact is that he's never going to be a natural at right back, and on top of that he's limited in terms of quickness. Korb has struggled badly with his crossing, but his running off the ball might still be a good source of offense tonight. What United needs out of Korb, rather than your typical high cross, is a hard low cross in behind the defense. That's an easier ball to strike, and it mitigates the size advantage San Jose has in the air.
Set pieces are going to be tough to defend. The Quakes are fully aware of their struggles on offense, so they're strongly invested in trying to score from corners. Bernardez is among MLS's best targets in those scenarios, and guys like Goodson and Lenhart are also big threats. However, I'm just as concerned with Wondo, who excels in these scenarios because of his sheer bravery and his innate ability to be first to the ball inside the box.
United really needs to do a strong job preventing the Quakes from getting any headers at the near post. Between glancing headers on goal or flick-ons, this is where San Jose generates a lot of their set piece threat. The best cure here is to simply win the initial header and clear it well, but that's far easier to type than to actually accomplish. We can safely assume that the Quakes will eventually win a couple of these balls, so United needs to be very focused in terms of marking up and also very fundamentally sound whenever they get the chance to clear their lines.
Intriguingly, the Quakes have not been as strong defending set pieces as they are attacking them. They have a very big, tough-minded group of players, so the issue isn't one of simply being outmatched. Instead, San Jose loses their way due to a lack of synchronization. Players are well-marked at first, but once the runs begin and things start to get chaotic, San Jose tends to lose people and/or cough up loose balls inside their own 18. Throw in Jon Busch's lack of size largely robbing the Quakes of the luxury of their goalkeeper coming out to catch or punch services, and this could be a good way for United to grab a goal.
Overall, this is a game United should win. Without Espindola there have been issues in terms of generating real chances, but United is good enough to score a goal or two on a team as low on confidence as this Quakes side is. The return of Wondo should make them harder to shut out than they have been in their recent matches, but I find it hard to believe that San Jose would be able to mount a strong comeback if United can grab the lead. Plus, San Jose has been shut out by lesser defensive sides than today's DCU. If United wants to be more than just a standard-issue MLS playoff team, this is a game they find a way to win.