D.C. United takes on the San Jose Earthquakes, one of just three games outside the Eastern Conference all season. The Quakes are sure to provide a tricky sort of opponent thanks to Matias Almeyda’s tactical approach, and because of Cristian Espinoza and emerging young star Cade Cowell.
To get more of a handle on what the Black-and-Red are up against tonight, we checked in with Alicia Rodriguez of Center Line Soccer (and many other California-based SB Nation sites):
B&RU: So much has been made of Matias Almeyda’s man-marking style and his requirement of complete buy-in. In D.C., while the man-marking specifics aren’t there, Hernán Losada wants his team to be physical and high-press, and is also very big on fitness and mental investment in the collective. Some teams like to try to pass their way around the Quakes, but United seems ready to just slug it out toe-to-toe. How has San Jose fared when they’re faced with an opponent who wants to, in broad terms, have this sort of high-intensity battle rather than avoid it?
Alicia Rodriguez: It all comes down to their intensity, to be honest. You’re right, other opponents in MLS don’t play San Jose’s way, so projecting how things will look against D.C. is pretty tough, but if the opponent is winning the intangible “intensity battle,” then the Quakes are most likely losing or on their way to doing that. Even if the Earthquakes are able to win the intensity metric, they can still lose at times, but they simply can’t take a night off and waltz out with a win.
Still, what’s worked for San Jose in having such a differential style is that they are so different, and they have bought in so well to follow Almeyda. It may be too early for Losada to get the same imprint on his squad but seeing an approach that is far more mirror-like to what the Quakes do is going to be very intriguing. It will either be the ugliest game of the season or maybe the most exciting. I very much hope it’s the latter, having stylistic variety in MLS makes it much more fun overall.
B&RU: San Jose got themselves into last year’s playoffs despite probably giving something away in terms of raw talent on their roster. This offseason, there weren’t very many additions. Are Chofis Lopez and Luciano Abecasis enough to take this team to the next level? What can United fans expect to see from them tomorrow night?
AR: I think, to be frank, the club expected they would have made more signings by this point. They were on the verge of signing a pretty big name in defense in a deal that fell through, not due to any issue on San Jose’s part, and GM Jesse Fioranelli has been upfront in admitting they need to upgrade at center back, something that still hasn’t been addressed. Pointedly, Almeyda told the media recently that San Jose lost seven players in the offseason and only signed four, which was a pretty telling statement.
So there’s work to be done on this roster and Quakes fans are understandably skittish that a team that doesn’t spend much may just not bother, although it sounds like they are really trying to add more. They could use a starting center back, for sure, and probably an upgrade in attack to contribute in goals at the very least.
As for the newcomers, Abecasis was hurt last week and he’s listed as questionable this week, so I’m not sure if he’ll feature. I’m guessing he won’t, although he looked fine in his debut in Week 1 at right back. I expect he’ll be a steady veteran at the position. Chofís is the much higher profile addition, and I think he’s looked like he’s not truly match fit yet. He’s a player who needed a change of scenery in his career and is playing for the coach who gave him his best stint with Chivas, but he’s not yet shown it on the field. To be fair, he hasn’t played for seven or eight months, so I’m prepared to give him some time to get up to speed and build a rhythm with his new teammates, but I think everyone would love for him to start producing on the scoresheet in order to show the roster is truly being upgraded and that they can make another step up this season.
B&RU: Cade Cowell is, for good reason, drawing league-wide interest after starting the season so impressively. What are the key elements to the 17-year-old’s game, and what can United do to avoid ending up being on the wrong end of another highlight video of his?
AR: Cowell is in his third season as a pro now — he got a good run of playing time last year for the Quakes — and this looks like it’s shaping up to be a “level up” year for him. He turned pro with a grown man’s physique, but he’s an attacking player who has an ability to beat a defender or two and score a banger, like he did last week against FC Dallas. In the same game, he hit an audacious outside-of-the-foot throughball assist, and to me, that’s the big development in his game, that he may be able to link up in attack and set up his teammates in addition to scoring.
But ultimately Cowell is being used as a forward and he’s been working on his finishing in recent months. He’s trained with both Chris Wondolowski, not a bad mentor at all, but also Sacramento Republic teenage defender Hayden Sargis, a rising star in his own right. He’s made the highlight plays and gotten some run as a starter, but the next step is to build consistency while also developing in his game. This may sound corny, but if Cowell turns out to be a starter who can score on a semi-regular basis, it will be like signing a new player, in a way, only they won’t pay a transfer fee and he’ll be on a Homegrown deal. But I’m high on Cowell and I hope he makes a big step up this year.
Ultimately, I think for United to neutralize Cowell, they’ll want to keep him off the ball. But San Jose are used to having the ball all over the field, so good luck on shutting him down and not just pushing the threat to another Earthquake.
Our thanks to Alicia for her time and her answers. If you want to check out the flip side of this exchange, my answers to her questions are a click away.