What a difference a year makes. In 2012, a match between the San Jose Earthquakes and D.C. United at this stage of the season would have gotten significant attention. The Quakes were atop the table and en route to a Supporters Shield, while United had broken through as a good team after years in the doldrums.
Things are a bit different now, to say the least. San Jose ended the season with 66 points last year, while their 2013 pace would see them finish with roughly 38. The fall has been even worse for United, obviously. To get back to last year's 58 points, the Black-and-Red can only drop 5 points in our final 19 games (that's a record of 17-1-1, or arguably the greatest runs in MLS history).
To use an oft-asked question in my college dorm: What happened here? For us, the problems are everywhere. For the Quakes, it's mostly on offense. Last year's San Jose side managed 2.12 goals per game, while this year's version has a far less intimidating average of 0.94. In other words, the 5-3 goalfest we saw last season between these two teams at Buck Shaw Stadium is probably not going to be repeated at RFK Stadium tomorrow night.
How does this happen to a team that, of their regulars, only lost Simon Dawkins and Khari Stephenson? I mean, sure, those are good players (particularly Dawkins, whose runs from left midfield frequently threw teams into chaos), but it's not like the Quakes were lacking MLS-level replacements. Shea Salinas has been available, and both Frank Yallop and Mark Watson have been willing to use Chris Wondolowski as a wide midfielder to make room for their small army of out-and-out strikers. It's not as good, but it shouldn't be this bad.
The real difference isn't even the players available. The issue has been simply not finishing at 2012's punishing rate. Everyone remembers Wondo tying the MLS all-time record for goals in a season with 27, but what is sometimes forgotten is that Alan Gordon had 13...and Steven Lenhart had 10...and the aforementioned 8 for Dawkins. Those four players and their 58 total goals would have finished with the third highest goal total in MLS last season (one behind the Galaxy). This year? Wondo has 5 goals in 16 games, Gordon and Lenhart have combined for just 1, and their top goalscorer from the midfield is defensive midfielder Sam Cronin (who only has 2 goals).
It's not just that the reduced goal total makes it harder to win on a simple "score the most goals and you win" level. Teams are not nearly as intimidated by San Jose this year, because the potential for conceding with every half-chance you let up is gone. The danger of going at the Quakes is no longer there, so opponents can attack a side that let up 43 goals last year (a very weak number amongst Shield winners).
The sudden fall from grace has caused a recent coaching change, as Frank Yallop was surprisingly let go (one of the few times where "mutual consent" may actually be at least somewhat accurate, given the lack of details) and has been replaced on an interim basis by top assistant Mark Watson. United fans of a certain vintage will remember Watson being a glacially slow defender for us back in 2001, but perhaps more important is what Yallop's previous long-term assistant (Dominic Kinnear) has gone on to accomplish.
Still, the one game the Quakes have played under Watson indicated that things aren't really going to change much. For all the speculation that the San Jose front office wanted a more possession-oriented, less direct team on the field, Watson's first game in charge saw the Quakes play plenty of long balls while opting for both Bash Brothers (Gordon and Lenhart) up top. Even if the Earthquakes want to change how they play the game, they're going to have to change their roster significantly to do so. This team is built to play the same style that Yallop did, and Watson isn't going to change that tomorrow.
As such, expect the 442 to continue, and that will come with the standard San Jose game of playing early balls in behind and lots of balls in the air pumped into the box:
While the formation is easy to predict, there are some question marks due to injuries. In the back, Steven Beitashour is iffy with a quadriceps contusion. That's an injury that can be difficult to play with, because it hampers your ability to sprint and strike the ball, so I think we're more likely to see Dan Gargan start at right back. Gargan lacks Beitashour's speed and quality on the ball, but he will try to make up for it with his battling, competitive style. He also has a long throw-in worth worrying about given the aerial prowess the Quakes have.
At center back, Victor Bernardez is back from suspension/Honduras national team duty - the latter cut short by a CONCACAF suspension - but there are questions about whether he'll play as well. Nana Attakora has deputized for Bernardez recently, so look for him to step in if the giant Honduran can't go. If that's the case, Attakora may switch spots with Jason Hernandez (especially since Hernandez's speed will be of more help for Gargan than Justin Morrow, who is plenty fast himself).
These could be huge changes in United's favor. Gargan and Attakora are rather less well-polished players who thrive in simple situations - i.e. winning headers and physical battles - but who can be deceived by players who attack with skill and intelligence. Yes, those have been qualities in short supply for United, but it's still something. Personally, I'd like to see Ben Olsen keep Nick DeLeon at left midfield to expose Gargan on the dribble, while our attempts to attack Attakora should strongly lean towards balls played to feet rather than in the air (where he's dominant).
In the midfield, the return of Marvin Chavez from Honduran national team duty is bad news for United. He's a unique player for the Quakes, given that he offers both top-notch speed and plenty of skill on the ball. That leaves one role on the flanks open, which will likely go to failed DCU trialist Walter Martinez rather than Shea Salinas (who has fallen out of favor as a starter). Wondolowski played left midfield in Colorado last week, but he's considered very doubtful to play any part on Saturday.
Martinez is an interesting case. With United, he was tried as an attacking midfielder and struggled mightily. The central role made sense, as Martinez has lost all semblance of the speed that once defined his game. With the Quakes, however, he's been used as a wide midfielder whose main role is to loop balls over the top and make himself available as an outlet to the central midfielders. He's still very slow for a wide man, but he often pinches inside and slightly ahead of Cronin and Rafael Baca rather than standing out on the touchline. United will need to apply high pressure on him throughout, because those balls he's clipping in over opposing defenses have been somewhat fruitful for the Quakes since he broke into the lineup.
Stopping Chavez is a different matter. As I highlighted in my piece on Honduras - which Catrachos head coach Luis Fernando Suarez rendered moot by starting Andy Najar instead - Chavez can take advantage of teams selling out to stop any one of his talents. If you play deep to mitigate his speed, he can cut in on the dribble or have a shot from distance. If you play him close enough where he won't have room to dribble at you, he'll just make runs past you for the Quakes to pick him out over the top. "El hijo del viento" (the son of the wind) is an apt nickname, because he's fast and elusive. United's left back - likely Alain Rochat, unless he's used in the midfield to save John Thorrington for the Open Cup - is going to have to play well, but will also need help throughout the match. Chavez simply isn't a guy you can shut down with one player.
The absence of Wondo and a foot injury for Lenhart has likely opened up a spot on the front line, where it seems safe to expect rookie Adam Jahn to partner Gordon. Jahn has been a revelation for the Quakes, scoring 4 goals in just 654 minutes (some of which have come in an unlikely central midfield role). If Lenhart is indeed kept on the bench, San Jose will miss out on his abrasive style - I can't imagine United's often unfocused back four dealing with Lenhart being Lenhart very well - Jahn offers a different threat. His soft first touch has earned him the nickname "Pillow Feet," and his ability to drop off the front line and pass is something Lenhart doesn't really bring into the fold. Plus, at 6'3" and 185 lbs, Jahn adds that wrinkle without sacrificing anything in terms of size, which plays right into how the Earthquakes go about their business.
There is also a chance that Martinez ends up on the front line, with Salinas playing left midfield. If that's the case, look for fewer direct balls to the center forwards and an increase in balls played over the top for the wingers to run onto. Salinas and Chavez both have elite speed, so any gains we'd make with Martinez playing a central role we know he's not very good at would be cancelled out with a tactic that has given this DC team fits all year. Of course, if Watson chooses to play Salinas and Jahn, he could do have the best of both worlds. Thankfully, Martinez appears to have secured his spot for the time being. Let's hope that continues tomorrow night.
So obviously we've established that San Jose is going to play a lot of early balls and put our back four under immediate pressure to defend rather than engage in any prolonged build-ups. Defending that successfully is going to test both the athleticism and anticipation of our back four, but it also requires concerted, intelligent pressure from our midfielders and forwards. If the Quakes have time to size up their long balls, they're probably going to deliver a threatening service. Making sure that doesn't happen will force San Jose to mix in other solutions, and at this point they've shown that they aren't particularly good at anything else on the ball. It's going to be a physically taxing game, to be sure, but that's part of what makes San Jose's style work.
The Quakes also test teams in terms of their psychological strength. Rather than pose a few very difficult questions, San Jose tends to simply ask an overwhelming number of questions that are only moderately difficult. In other words, they put your organization and your individual players to repeated tests of getting the simple thing right over and over. You mis-hit a clearance, or fail to correctly judge the trajectory of an 80 yard ball (Brandon McDonald, looking right at you), and they punish you.
That's bad news for United, because that's where many of our failures have been. Teams haven't had to come up with brilliance to beat us, because they know that we'll eventually cough up a soft goal. That's San Jose's bread and butter: Putting teams under low-level but constant danger until they slip up, and then capitalizing. United will have to find a way to be steady defensively for 90 minutes; anything less and we could be in for a repeat of the loss to TFC, who barely threatened our goal at all yet won 2-1.
In the attack, we need to see some patience on the ball mixed with attacks focused down the left wing and on the ground at the center backs. The Earthquakes are a -9 goal difference on the season for a reason: They give up goals regularly. While the impotent attack that United showed in the second half against TFC won't be a threat, the quality of play we had against Philly in the Open Cup would create plenty of looks at goal tomorrow (assuming San Jose doesn't turn up with their best defensive performance of the season).
I bring up patience with the ball because the Quakes have struggled with staying organized when under duress. This isn't a team that bends without breaking very often; when they're in trouble, they just break. Plus, the central midfield duo of Baca and Cronin has been less effective this year at disrupting play (the move away from last year's 4132 to a flat 442 is in part a consequence of that). They're already a pair that isn't going to win central midfield with power and aggression, and now they're having some issues with their spacing and their coordination to boot. United should have no fear of trying to play the ball through the middle, where some of our only players capable of playing the ball at the right speed - Perry Kitchen and John Thorrington - are. The more we see those two getting their touches on the ball, the more likely we'll expose the cracks in the San Jose back four.
Set pieces have also, rather surprisingly, been an issue for the Quakes. Despite having a team full of big, aggressive players, the Quakes have been losing their marks and letting up a lot of scrambles in their box on corners and free kicks that the 2012 version would have cleared with ease. Jon Busch can't really help fix the situation, either, as he is MLS's smallest starting GK.
Kyle Porter, if he can play, has offered up some enticing corner kicks, but too often we've seen United fail to meet the ball. A big issue in that department has been pretty simple: Our players aren't attacking the ball vigorously enough. We see teams like Houston and KC score on set pieces all the time and credit the service and their collective size, but what helps them just as much is their bloody-minded determination to win the ball. If United can show that kind of hunger to win the ball in the air on set pieces, San Jose's size advantage won't matter as much as their lack of organization does.
There's an interesting potential for this game to end up as another high-scoring affair. Last year, it was because both teams had real firepower. This year, it's more because neither defense is any good. San Jose's direct nature will likely cause United huge problems, but then guys like DeLeon and Dwayne De Rosario should pose the kind of questions for the Quakes that often result in goals as well.
All in all, the chances of a DCU win come down to our ability to do the simple things right over and over again in the back. That's not encouraging, but it's also not a high bar to reach. San Jose isn't going to ask United to solve a problem like a Robbie Keane-Landon Donovan forward pairing, nor do they have someone as skilled and elusive as Marco Di Vaio. In basketball terms, this isn't a game of HORSE; it's free-throw shooting in an empty gym. The Quakes aren't going to ask United to do anything particularly difficult, but they are going to make the Black-and-Red pay if we make any simple mistakes.