DC United travels to California to take on the San Jose Earthquakes tonight. While this fixture doesn't have a history of being a particularly notable one (the Quakes were terrible during United's glorious early years, and their rise to power came right after DC began the Rongen/Hudson era), make no mistake: This is a big game for Los Capitalinos. Our hosts, you see, are currently the last team that would get into the 2010 MLS playoffs. United trails San Jose by 8 points, so a loss tonight will potentially leave us 11 points outside of the playoffs. Conversely, a win could pull us within just 5 points in spite of our truly diabolical start to the season. It's hard to have a make-or-break game in the middle of the season, but this isn't far from being just that for DC.
Beyond the jump, I've got San Jose's likely formation as well as some things to look out for from our perspective.
Frank Yallop is a 442 man for life. Here's the most likely Earthquakes starting lineup for tonight:
What's with the question marks? Normal first-choice right midfielder Joey Gjertsen has been out for a little while with a quadriceps strain. Gjertsen, who once won the USL MVP award, likes to stay wide on the wing to help stretch teams out. He offers the best balance to Bobby Convey on the left, but his quad might not be ready for a start. If Gjertsen can't go, Yallop has two options. Arturo Alvarez has often played on the right for San Jose, but he drifts inside (creating a narrower game, which is easier for visiting teams to defend). He's also something of a defensive liability. On the other hand, Alvarez has match-winning skill in his left foot, and is the kind of guy that can be terrible for 89 minutes only to produce a top-class winning goal or assist in stoppage time. If Yallop isn't willing to gamble with Alvarez, he could go for rookie Steve Beitashour. Beitashour has more MLS minutes at right back than in midfield, but went the full 90 for the Quakes in their last match, a 0-0 draw at Real Salt Lake. He's a great athlete with real speed, but offensively he's a fairly limited player. Being at home and facing a team that will be starting an unfamiliar left back, I'm guessing Yallop rolls the dice on Alvarez if Gjertsen sits out.
Elsewhere, it's straightforward. Jason Hernandez is at right back because Beitashour and Chris Leitch have failed to establish themselves there and because Ike Opara and Bobby Burling have both played well centrally. Sam Cronin, just traded from Toronto FC, started at RSL and provides the Quakes with some passing ability (something they've struggled with in central midfield whenever Andre Luiz is unavailable).
Things to look out for:
1. United must shut down Convey's crosses to have success. San Jose starts two big forwards that thrive on winning headers and winning their physical battles in pursuit of the ball. Convey is their main supplier, and his 7 assists are second in MLS behind Landon Donovan. If United continues with Devon McTavish at right back, he'll have to stay very close and force Convey into playing backwards passes. Essentially, the idea for DC will be to make someone else in an Earthquakes shirt create the chances. If Convey is quiet, United is that much closer to getting a result.
2. Pressure Jon Busch. You may have heard that long-time starter Joe Cannon was benched by Yallop in favor of Busch. Busch is a good keeper, but he's also likely got some rust on him. There's also significant pressure from Cannon; Busch most likely knows this is his only chance at keeping a starting job in San Jose. Busch's history with long-range shots isn't the best, and he's also struggled at times with the ball at his feet. If guys like Santino Quaranta, Chris Pontius, and Clyde Simms can find room to crack something at goal from distance, they should. DC's forwards (especially Adam Cristman) should also look to run at Busch whenever the ball is played back to him by Earthquake defenders. Blocking a clearance into the goal may not be as pretty as a 35 yard rocket, but they all count for the same on the scoreboard. Playing away, United should be perfectly happy scoring ugly goals if that's what's available.
3. Be ready to battle. Yallop has finally gotten a team to buy into his system (which hasn't happened for him since Earthquakes 1.0). One of the pillars of that system is a team full of hard-working players that relish physical play. DC's going to have to come out from kickoff ready to match or exceed that attitude, without going over the line into fouling needlessly. Our players have to be prepared for heavy shoulder-to-shoulder challenges and tackles with a lot of weight behind them. This game could easily be won and lost on one contested header or one collision in which one player stays up and the other goes down.