The Earthquakes' offense gets most of the attention paid to the team, and justifiably so given that they're nearing record breaking goal scoring totals. But you don't win a Supporters Shield without a good defense too, and that defense was on display tonight at CenturyLink field. The Earthquakes flooded the midfield to choke off Seattle's buildup and Victor Bernardez was a titan in central defense who shut down Fredy Montero all game.
San Jose were helped by the fact that Eddie Johnson and Mauro Rosales were out, but even without those players Seattle has a potent attack that tonight was made to look mostly impotent. Though they're credited with 13 shots, most of those were speculative chances from distance. They had exactly one shot on goal thanks to a moment of magic (and a little bit of luck) from Sammy Ochoa who half inadvertently sombrero'd a defender to get in the clear and cross to Steve Zakuani at the far post for a confident tap in. That was Steve's first goal since his injury and one of the few positives to come out of the game is the increasing confidence that Steve will be ready to be a consistent attacking threat in the playoffs.
That goal tied the game after San Jose pulled ahead in the opening minutes on a curling shot from distance by Simon Dawkins. The Seattle defense was a little soft closing him down and clearly hadn't settled into the game yet. San Jose's second goal and the eventual winner came on a set piece, which continues to be a problem for the Sounders D. Portland's tying goal last week came off of a corner kick as well. This time it was a weakly headed clearance that fell to the feet of Bernardez, who shot it in to be deflected into the net by Chris Wondolowski. Even worse, the corner was completely unnecessary as it came off a bizarrely errant backpass by Adam Johansson, who struggled in possession all game.
With a 2-1 lead Frank Yallop oddly chose to sub in a forward for a midfielder as Steven Lenhart entered (to his traditional chorus of boos) for Mehdi Ballouchy, but even then Seattle failed to create chances. It wasn't until David Estrada took the field for the first time since May that Seattle started to look threatening. By then San Jose had retreated into a deep bunker and the Sounders were lofting in balls hoping to win headers off the much taller Earthquakes, but Estrada displayed his now familiar ability to find space and put the ball on frame from anywhere with a couple of good looking shots that were deflected.
This game was as much about setting markers for the playoffs as for its effect on the regular season standings. And for now the message is that Seattle isn't good enough. The defense wasn't switched on from the first minute, the set piece clearances are frantic and unreliable, and the offense runs out of ideas too quickly without Rosales providing service.
But that's actually one of the good things to take out of the game. It's better to learn these things now than to enter the playoffs arrogant and learn them after it's too late. So we'll take that lesson and the promise provided by Zakuani's goal and Estrada's return and expect to see a better team in Vancouver next week.