In what has become an recurring theme around here, the San Jose Earthquakes side the Sounders will face on Saturday is potentially quite different from the one that scored a 1-0 victory in May.
As many as five starters could be different -- in recent weeks Cornell Glen, Sam Cronin, Ike Opara, Jason Hernandez and Joe Busch have all been starting.
Some of those players, such as Cronin and Opara, are either new to the team or were normal starters that just happened to miss the match in May. Cronin was acquired in a trade with Toronto FC, where he started 26 of 27 games last year. Opara missed a chunk of games in to finish his degree at Wake Forest, but has reestablished himself as a starter and one of the top young defenders in the league.
The presence of Glen and Busch, though, appears to be more strategic.
Glen has started the last three games in place of Ryan Johnson, who at times has looked to be one of the league's top up-and-coming forwards. But coming off a season in which he scored 11 goals, Johnson has scored just once this season. Glen, who has scored 23 international goals for Trinidad & Tobago, has managed five goals in just 864 minutes over two seasons with the Quakes.
Busch, a 12-year MLS veteran, is a former Goalkeeper of the Year (2008) and appears to have wrestled away the starting job from Joe Cannon. Busch made his Quakes debut on June 25, registering a shutout at Real Salt Lake, and has started all four games since the end of the World Cup break. The Quakes have not lost since he was installed as starter.
The last match Cannon won, coincidentally, was against Seattle. He failed to make a single save in his next match, a 3-1 loss at home to Toronto, and then allowed two goals in each of his next two.
Although San Jose (23 points in 15 matches) enters the match on a four-match unbeaten streak, they've only won once since the May 22 match against Seattle. In that time, they've gone 1-4-2 and been outscored 11-8 while slipping back into a tie for the sixth playoff spot and just one point ahead of No. 9 Seattle. After beating Seattle, the Quakes had the third best record in MLS.
That start may have masked some of San Jose's struggles, though. Even at that high-water mark, the Quakes were being significantly out shot by opponents (101-88) and were giving far more corner kicks than they were taking (85-76). Those problems have gotten worse, but the Quakes still seem to be outperforming those peripheral stats.
The Quakes currently rank fifth in average goal differential (+.13), despite being ranked 14th in average shot differential (-2.93) and 15th in average corner kick differential (-1.27). This is basically explained by the fact they are scoring on about 12.5 percent of their shots, while only conceding goals on about 9 percent of shots. Maintaining those kinds of disparities would seem to be a tough road to the playoffs.
The Sounders, at least recently, seem to be trending in the opposite direction. Not only have they not lost in three straight MLS matches to climb back into the playoff race, but they have managed to go 5-1-1 in their past seven competitive contests and have only allowed two goals in their past five competitive matches.
This comes on the heels of a streak of matches in which the Sounders allowed three goals in three straight MLS contests.
"It’s just an overall mentality to be honest," Sounders right back James Riley said. "It starts with the front, too. Our forwards are more compact and playing as a unit, it takes a lot of pressure off our back four and the goalkeeper. The overall team spirit, team discipline and team mentality to not take goals is how we’ve shifted."
Riley, as well as several other players, also pointed to the fact that the Sounders' recent run has coincided with their playing in the U.S. Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League. The crammed schedule has certainly been a physical grind, but it's also given the team the chance to show off their depth.
"Guys feel more involved that way," Riley said. "I think the extra competition is good for us."
The increased number of matches has also helped facilitate several lineup changes. Chief among those changes has been the installation of Jeff Parke and Patrick Ianni as the starting center backs. The USOC match against Los Angeles marked the debut of Parke-Ianni pairing. In that match, they limited backup goalkeeper Terry Boss' exposure -- he only had to make two saves -- and helped register the team's first shutout in five matches. The duo has now started four of the past five matches together -- Taylor Graham and Tyrone Marshall started against Metapan -- and the opposition hasn't scored more than one goal in any of the matches.
The highlight of their time together came during last week's matchup with the Colorado Rapids and, particularly, Conor Casey. in the teams' first meeting, Casey essentially tossed Parke aside while scoring the game's only goal. This time, it was the Sounders who took the physical initiative.
"First time around, hmmm, I wasn’t really used to getting banged around," Parke said. "But this time I welcomed the challenge, I guess you could say. (Casey) is one of the better, stronger guys to play against.
"I just went in (with the attitude) if he’s going to be physical with me then I’m going to have to outmuscle him or just get a piece of him as much as he’s getting a piece of me when we’re trying to go up for a ball."
Although ending Casey's night with a trip to the trainer's room was not part of the plan, the penalty-area, head-to-head collision with Ianni that opened a large cut in his shaved head that sent Casey there seemed to send a message that the Sounders won't be shying away from physical play.
"I think that kind of stuff makes the forwards we are playing against think 'We’re in for a tough game,'" Ianni said. "We have to show it every game. I think you can tell the attitude in the game in the first 10 minutes. We have to get off to a good start like we’ve been doing and hopefully we’ll get the result we need going forward."
The next opportunity comes tonight.