COLUMBUS, OH - JULY 16: Jason Hernandez #21 of the San Jose Earthquakes congratulates goalkeeper Jon Busch #18 of the San Jose Earthquakes after the Earthquake played to a 0-0 tie against the Columbus Crew on July 16, 2011 at Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
While much concerning this game will be about spectacle (Kasey Keller, Fan Appreciation) there is also the little game of soccer. The San Jose Earthquakes enter Saturday's game already eliminated from the MLS Cup Playoffs. A dire stretch from June 17th to the present saw them win only two matches - one against the Fire and the other against the Revolution. 2011 ends a stretch of improvement displayed from 2009 to 2010 when they went from bad to an average side that made a nice run in the 2010 Playoffs. In Saturday's game they will have their last chance at a cup, even if it is one as minor as the Heritage Cup. Helping preview the game is Robert from Quake, Rattle and Goal.
SaH: Who besides Wondo could cause Seattle to adjust defensively?
QR&G: Probably the worst kept secret around the Earthquakes training ground this week has been the desire of his teammates to see Chris Wondolowski retain the MLS Golden Boot award for the second straight season. While no one would openly state such a sentiment, a careful look back to last weekend's match at the New England Revolution revealed a couple of offensive sequences when a seemingly better pass was eschewed for the opportunity to instead get the ball to their scoring leader. While this should not sound so unusual for a team that has been eliminated from postseason consideration, forcing the ball to Wondo when a more dangerous scoring opportunity might be at hand can mess with the flow of the game and result in unnecessary turnovers. Still, with little else left to prove for the guys still getting minutes for Frank Yallop's side, propelling Wondolowski the top of the MLS scoring chart is seemingly all the team has left to play for in an otherwise disappointing 2011.
Having said all that, the Seattle defense will need to keep their eyes out for the movement and possession of attacking midfielder Simon Dawkins. The Englishman on loan from Tottenham Hotspur has moved past an injury-filled spring and summer to become a fixture in the Earthquakes starting XI. Often run out as a left midfielder, Dawkins looks most dangerous when stationed more centrally -- a position he manned in the latter stages of the win at New England -- where he can break down defenses on the dribble and free himself for give-and-go sequences into the opponent's penalty area. Not the most physical of players -- he'll need to toughen up in MLS if he is to ever see out his dream of playing for Spurs in the EPL -- Dawkins can be muscled off the ball, but only if you can find the space to challenge him.
Where the Earthquakes have really elevated their game in the last couple months -- the team is unbeaten in six of their last seven matches -- is from the wing play of their two outside backs Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour. The former has became a full-time starter since an injury forced Bobby Convey out of the line-up and veteran Ramiro Corrales moved into the midfield. He has good pace to run the touchline into the attacking third, while still having the presence to retreat into defense as required. On the right side, Beitashour has flourished in his second MLS season to be the good-to back for coach Yallop. A player with speed just below the level of Morrow, Beitashour has found a nice touch in delivering dangerous crosses into the box. On the season, the defender paces the team with 6 assists -- twice as much as any of his teammates -- while also providing good cover in the back.
SaH: The lineup and formation seems to be constantly shifting. Is this due to injuries forcing a search for a solution or as quest for a team identity?
QR&G: Injuries and absences resulted in a tremendous amount of turmoil for the Earthquakes over the summer -- and were major contributors to a winless streak that stretched from early June to mid September -- but the team appears to have moved on from that months long uncertainty. Losing the target forward services of both Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon by the end of July presented a new challenge to coach Yallop, who responded with a more possession-based tactical set-up that has seen the team play its most attractive soccer of the season. Part of that change came with the introduction of rookie midfielder Rafael Baca into the regular starting XI, as well as the shift of MLS Original Ramiro Corrales from the back line into more of a playmaking role. The two have bonded nicely in the midfield and have helped propel the Earthquakes average pass attempts and passing accuracy to season highs over the last 8 games. Midfielder Khari Stephenson, forced into a forward's role by a lack of depth at that position, beings additional ball-control style to the Quakes line-up. The tall Jamaican admirably fills in as a quasi-target forward at times, but is most effective facing goal. His increased mobility and ball handling skills make him an excellent counterpart to Wondolowski at the top of the Earthquakes 4-4-2 formation.
SaH: Is Bingham going to start the final two games of the season? What does he bring to the team that Busch doesn't?
QR&G: Coach Yallop revealed by midweek that Jon Busch would regain his starting role for the trip to Seattle, ending rookie David Bingham's string of goalkeeping starts to one game. While not a surprise to long-time followers of the Quakes, who know that Yallop tends to favor veterans over first-year players, not rewarding Bingham with a second start after his solid performance in last week's 2-1 victory at the Revolution is unusual. After wins, the coach does not like to shake things up, and tends to trot out the same starting XI after every positive match. In this case, the Quakes know what they have in Bingham, and look set to move into next season with the Generation Adidas goalkeeper as their clear number two. The good to take from the result in New England is that if they choose to gamble come the MLS Expansion Draft, Busch might be left unprotected to selection by the Montreal Impact. If Busch were to leave San Jose, Bingham appears ready to take the helm as the Quakes number one.