CHESTER, PA - APRIL 28: Steven Lenhart #24 of the San Jose Earthquakes celebrates with teammate Joey Gjertsen #17 after Lenhart scored his second and game winning goal during the second half against the Philadelphia Union in a Major League Soccer game on April 28, 2012 at PPL Park in Chester, Pennsylvania. San Jose defeated the Union 2-1. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
Saturday night's 7:30 PM KONG televised game between the Seattle Sounders FC and the San Jose Earthquakes could be Seattle's last chance at the top of the Western Conference. With the one game in hand, two games against the 'Quakes and only seven points difference, this is the chance that any team asks for within their season. But it's a game with challenges for Seattle. These are all of the same challenges that Seattle had when their reserve laden team went into Kezar Stadium and beat the Earthquakes in the Open Cup.
If you feel like some parts of the season are of the "rinse, wash, repeat" nature, that's because it is. There's no Alan Gordon, nor Frank Yallop tonight, but it's clear that the Earthquakes are favorites. They have some recent struggles, but are still clearly the best team of the 2012 season and maybe the best of this version of San Jose in MLS' young history back in the city.
Your guide through three questions is Robert from Quake, Rattle and Goal.
SaH: What, if any, lessons can the Earthquakes take from the Kezar Stadium game?
QRG: Seattle came into Kezar with a formation intended to stifle a quicker Earthquakes team by forcing them to stick to the wings. And if the Quakes were able to shake loose on the outside to send crosses centrally, taller Sounders defenders were positioned to aerially clear the ball from danger. Only when San Jose brought in Steven Lenhart to counter the Seattle defensive height did the game's momentum turn in favor of the Earthquakes. However, unable to move freely through the Sounders area, and stymied by a bumpy pitch in an effort to play the ball on the ground, San Jose never could find the equalizer.
Playing at Buck Shaw Stadium should present a much better opportunity to play the type of soccer that has resulted in the Earthquakes having their best season since their Supporters' Shield campaign of 2005. The ability to switch the ball side to side along the ground will be much easier at The Buck, and space to maneuver on either sideline will benefit speedy wingers Shea Salinas and Marvin Chavez. And unlike in the USOC quarterfinal at Kezar, forward duo Lenhart and Chris Wondolowski will play the game from the opening whistle. If Rafael Baca and Sam Cronin can win the battle in the midfield, the pace of the game should favor San Jose throughout.
SaH: When will the pressure of a run starting to set into the players?
QRG: It starts with head coach Frank Yallop and filters down through the coaching staff and finally to the players -- never give up on the ball whether on offense or defense. Yallop's player preferences gravitate to those that can play both ways. Subsequently, they respond with a pressuring defense that looks to disrupt the opponent in possession and look for quick counterattacks down the wings. Having height with Lenhart and positional acuity from Wondolowski in the penalty area make the job of the wingers and outside backs easy in that all they need to do is cross the ball into the mixer for the two forwards to latch onto. It's a simple strategy that frees the players to focus on playing to their capabilities rather than trying to constantly play to a set of firm tactics. Enjoyment of the game has helped the Earthquakes feel less pressure at their present place in the standings than might otherwise be expected.
And that leads to the biggest reason for the looseness of the squad -- a set of expectations that come only from within the organization and not from the outside perspective. Pundits had San Jose finishing outside the playoffs again this season, but internally the coaches and players knew otherwise. Complementary pieces have been assembled and the whole is performing at a fantastic level. Would anyone have predicted that Wondolowski, Lenhart, and Alan Gordon would be reaching statistical career highs this season with the Earthquakes? That trio, and many others on the team, have far surpassed expectations, so the success of the team is all reward and they are enjoying every moment. Any inquires as to whether they are surprised at what they have achieved is universally met with a "We never expect to lose" answer.
SaH: With All Stars scattered throughout the formation, is this as complete a team as San Jose has had?
QRG: To a man, this Earthquakes side is as complete a team as has been seen in San Jose since their first run of MLS championships in 2001-03. In those years, then new head coach Yallop benefited from a limited pool of teams and a dispersal draft following MLS contraction that bolstered the squad mightily. Many proven players, along with some shred draft picks set together a team that won two Cups and later a Supporters' Shield. Since returning to the league in 2008, this is the first time the Earthquakes can approach those sides in terms of quality and depth, and the results this season are proving that correct.
This time around a mixture of draft picks and talented young players like Steven Beitashour, Justin Morrow, Lenhart, Baca, and Cronin have joined forces with proven veterans to bring a balance of talent and dedication to a total team effort that sees every game as theirs to earn three points. Players are not in San Jose to take a vacation, and instead, like Jon Busch and Gordon, are finding career resurrections. Luck cannot explain their season filled with dramatic comebacks, rather a resolve to do well for themselves and their coach. For the first time in five years, the Earthquakes are collectively more than a team, they have achieved the level of club.
Robert regrets not being able to do a reverse,. He barely fit time for answers into his packed life.
Dave's projection for Seattle, slightly different than Sidreal's projection