If there was ever a time for D.C. United to take on the San Jose Earthquakes, it's now. Coming off an embarrassing 4-0 loss, the Quakes have not won since their 4-2 victory at RFK on June 11th. While they have ground out five draws in that eight-game spell, things are going poorly for Frank Yallop's side. The injuries (and suspensions) are piling up, players are getting frustrated, and the ball is generally not bouncing their way.
Then again, the Quakes might take a look at aerially-challenged United and see us as just what the doctor ordered. D.C.'s record over their last eight games, for example, features just one more win than San Jose. Further, United has not won in San Jose in ages, and Buck Shaw Stadium features MLS's smallest field dimensions (something that favors the larger, more physical Quakes). As both Comcast (in their broadcast of United's 1-0 loss to New England last week) and Steve Goff have pointed out, D.C. has given up 11 headed goals and scored none; San Jose's attack is designed primarily to create high crosses for striker Steven Lenhart and versatile attacker Chris Wondolowski.
While a July game against a team we have no real rivalry with might not seem important, it can be argued that tonight's match may be vital down the road. Both clubs want to end their recent moribund spells by picking up three points; tonight could well be the start of a run for either side. There's also the race for wild card spots in the playoffs. D.C. is just 3 points behind Sporting Kansas City for the last spot at the moment (with a game in hand), while the Quakes are a point closer. If either team has real designs on a playoff spot in 2011, now is probably the moment to start picking up points on a regular basis.
Read on for a look at San Jose's formation, issues, and strengths:
Thanks to a rash of injuries, Frank Yallop's team will have an unfamiliar look:
The major issues for Yallop are in central defense. Stalwart Jason Hernandez was a late scratch against Real Salt Lake last week, and Yallop has said that he's concerned about playing him tonight, which would risk turning a short-term injury into a long one. Fellow starter Bobby Burling is suspended after being the victim of Alvaro Saborio's dive last week, while Ike Opara is possibly out for the year with what seems to be his umpteenth foot injury.
Yallop can't even rely on players that normally play other positions. Defensive midfielder Brad Ring, who came off the bench last week for Nana Attakora (who will probably start tonight, but is short of fitness and has carried a couple knocks all season long), is suspended due to yellow card accumulation. As such, Yallop will probably be forced to field right back Chris Leitch and Attakora - who aside from fitness concerns is also young, new to San Jose, and has frequently been erratic over his short MLS career - as his center backs.
The confusion doesn't end there. We could see Ramiro Corrales at center back if Yallop trusts him more than Leitch or Attakora, or at left back where his experience might be needed to help out a patchwork back four. If Corrales is at left back, then Bobby Convey - most baffling all star ever? - will play left midfield. If Convey's in the back, newcomer Rafael Baca will be in the midfield. I'm thinking we'll see the latter, but it's a virtual toss-up.
In attack, there are also some problems. Wondolowski is fit and will start somewhere, but exactly where depends on the availability of Stephen Lenhart, who was also left out against RSL. Lenhart's absence would be more than welcome, as United struggled mightily with his combative style in our last meeting. With fellow target man Alan Gordon listed as questionable, we might see Wondo forced to play up high, with Scott Sealy underneath (which is the approach Yallop used against RSL).
There is also the possibility of San Jose playing a 4411; in that case, Wondolowski or Lenhart would have Simon Dawkins (questionable with a hamstring strain) playing underneath. Wondolowski could end up at left midfield in that formation as well, but only if Lenhart and/or Gordon are passed fit to start. Dawkins didn't get the headlines against us at RFK, but his play off the bench was a big part of the Quakes striking twice in the second half of that game.
The lack of player availability is a big issue for San Jose, who played RSL with a short bench last week. However, they also appear to be cracking a bit psychologically. San Jose seemed to blame the referees entirely for their 4-0 loss last week; a more accurate portrayal of events is that the Quakes had a complete meltdown after just one bad call. Sure it was a particularly ridiculous bad call, but San Jose mentally collapsed like a house of cards.
A team with the right mentality looks at what they did wrong to lose the game, or talks about how they haven't won in eight. Instead, the Quakes are still focused on the referee, their injury problems, and seemingly everything other than getting a win no matter the circumstances. This is a huge weak spot, and United can make it worse by starting the game well. If San Jose finds the going tough early, they are more likely to lose confidence, make mistakes, and generally play poorly. However, if D.C. starts out slowly and allows the Quakes to get some belief, we'll have a much more difficult opponent to contend with.
Defensively, a big key for United will be to shut down - or at least complicate - San Jose's ability to cross the ball. No matter where Convey lines up, Andy Najar and Perry Kitchen will need to make sure to get in close on him any time he's on the ball and in our defensive third. Convey is not made of the toughest stuff; he's not going to muscle someone off or hit a good cross under high pressure. Najar in particular will need to be alert to this, because Convey often plays his crosses from rather deep positions.
Another way to help this idea out would be to, as a team, force San Jose to come down the right, where in Jacob Peterson and Tim Ward they have a duo known more for hard work than for offensive talent. That requires smart work defensively all the way up to our forwards, who can help tilt the field by high-pressuring only when the Quakes try to move the ball to the left side.
There is also the small matter of dealing with Wondolowski, who may be MLS's most elusive forward. Wondo presents a classic "easier said than done" situation for opposing defenses. All you really need to do to contain him is to always be aware of where he is and where he's going. Unfortunately, Wondolowski has a great knack for drifting just out of view of his defender, and then attacking a space they weren't expecting him to go for. The Quakes are always looking for him around the box, so anything short of top-notch focus will give one of the league's best finishers a chance to shoot at Bill Hamid's goal.
Going forward, it's very important for D.C. to attack from the opening whistle. No matter who plays for the Quakes in the back, it will be a thoroughly unfamiliar back four. Letting them settle into a rhythm and develop confidence as a group would squander a huge advantage. With injuries likely depriving D.C. of Josh Wolff and Joseph Ngwenya, we will most likely see Blake Brettschneider start against the team he scored his first professional goal against. He may be partnered by Charlie Davies, but there is a chance that CD9's knee problem leaves him on the bench.
In that case, I'd prefer to see Chris Pontius play up front and push high up the field in an effort to make use of his speed. In my eyes, keeping Dwayne De Rosario in attacking midfield and playing Austin Da Luz wide on the left will give San Jose's new-look defense more problems than the alternative of pushing De Ro up front and using Stephen King in central midfield. In any case, the best way to open up this defense will be to stay mobile off the ball. For defenders that are new to one another, even simple stuff like one forward checking back and the other running in behind can cause huge problems; the Quakes would much prefer to see a stagnant D.C. team. Fortunately for us, the weather in San Jose is much more conducive to soccer than the sweltering conditions we have at home; the more mobile offense tonight will be the one that creates the most chances tonight.
Like I said at the top, this is a deceptively important game, and it's doubtful that the Quakes will be at lower strength in terms of personnel and confidence than they are tonight. In other words, this becomes a game we can't afford to lose. The MLS schedule does not often place a rival for a playoff spot in front of you at their worst; this is not a gift that should be wasted. Olsen should be clear with his side tonight that a positive, attacking outlook will generate loads of chances while simultaneously eroding whatever self-belief San Jose has left at this point. DC has been very good about being ruthless and punishing teams on the road, and tonight needs to be another example of this "cruel" road mentality. Sweep the leg!