Sounders v San Jose Earthquakes - Three Questions

Four of the top 16 scorers in MLS will be on the pitch Saturday night. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Tonight's 7:30 PM start between the Seattle Sounders FC and the San Jose Earthquakes could cause some traffic issues for all parties involved. The Seattle Mariners start play just about 90 minutes earlier. So players, coaches, and fans should all leave their homes earlier because tonight is a must-not-miss match. The two sides have the least losses on the season, are essentially both locks for the Playoffs (Seattle needs only a draw tonight to clinch) and both parties have several goalscorers and game changers.

This is Seattle's last best chance at an attempt for the Supporters' Shield. For the Earthquakes it is their shot at eliminating all Western Conference opposition from that race. It is also the final match in the Heritage Cup, which though the minorest (yes, a word today) of trophies is still a symbol of teams that embraced their past rather than ignored it. There are some complicated tie-breakers but the easiest way for the Sounders to claim it is to win tonight by two goals. Robert from Quake, Rattle and Goal is today's guide in Three Questions. There is no reverse.

SaH: Wondo gets the love, and he's the clear leader to be the MVP, but there's an intriguing dynamic between Lenhart and Gordon. Why does one start and not the other?

QRG: Frank Yallop likes to with one target forward and one slashing forward, so only one of Lenhart and Gordon ever makes the starting XI. Yallop expects his starter to go at least 60 minutes before being subbed off by the substitute. If the match situation warrants it and the Earthquakes need a late goal or two, both target forwards can be used to exert extra pressure on the opposing defense.

The flip side to using both Gordon and Lenhart at the same time, with Chris Wondolowski also on the field, is that the midfield tends to get stretched more than has been comfortable for the Earthquakes defense. Given the importance that outside backs Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow have to the offense via their overlapping runs, too much focus on forward numbers leave them vulnerable in the back. Just Wednesday, this dynamic almost cost San Jose a point against the Portland Timbers, as a late counterattack nearly foiled the Earthquakes two-goal comeback draw.

The question as to which of Gordon and Lenhart is the first-choice starter is more difficult to answer. Each has had his fair share of starts in 2012, as Yallop has rotated between the two. Sometimes injuries and suspensions force Yallop's hand in choosing his target forward, but usually it comes down to which striker has had the most recent
success. Currently, Gordon is the favored forward, and is likely to be the starter this Saturday against the Sounders.

SaH: Is Yallop starting to rest players in preparation for the Playoffs? I notice Opara got a string starts.

QRG: Coach Yallop has been banging the Supporters'' Shield drum the past two weeks, especially after the Earthquakes secured a playoff spot in the West. From the coaching staff and the players to the front office personnel, everyone in the organization understands how much it would mean to the club to potentially host the MLS Cup Final. Yallop admitting resting Wondolowski and Gordon to start the Portland match on Wednesday, but he then intimated that he would field full-strength line-ups the rest of the way.

In the case of Ike Opara, the talented defender has been biding his time as he awaiting full health and the opportunity to dethrone Jason Hernandez as the partner of Victor Bernardez in the starting XI. From the start of preseason, even before the infamous flame-out of the US men's U-23s in Olympic qualifying of which Opara was a part, coach Yallop has talked about the Opara/Bernardez centerback duo was likely to his starters by season's end. Only recently have those two been ready and available to fulfill Yallop's early vision.

SaH: How is San Jose in deadball situations?

QRG: San Jose has done very well on offensive when it comes to set pieces. The team has three goals directly off free-kicks, and a half-dozen more as a direct result of restarts from those situations. From corner kicks, the Earthquakes have set a post-2008 franchise high for goals created from those deadball situations. All in all, with big bodies Lenhart, Gordon, Bernardez, and Opara populating the opponent's penalty area, San Jose has the
athletes to get on the end of set-piece deliveries.

On defense, the Earthquakes have been very effective in deadball situations. The same players that are so dangerous on the offensive side of the ball are very effective in defense as well. Only David Beckham, who is known for these things, and Javier Morales, have scored directly off free kicks against San Jose this season.

The Earthquakes play a physical brand of soccer that yields a fair amount of free-kicks in their defensive half. So far this hasn't hurt the team, as the defense and goalkeeper Jon Busch have stepped up when necessary.

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