This weekend's match in San Jose has suddenly become one of the most anticipated games of the season. Not because it's a premier opponent or because we expect a high level of play or because we're that excited about breaking in the 49ers' new stadium, but because Sounders fans are desperate to know how the team will react to last week's 90 minute lesson at the hands of Bruce Arena and the Galaxy.
|Shea Salinas||The only reliable chance creator on the team (at least until new DP Garcia gets going), he can cause problems all day from the left wing.|
|Victor Bernardez||Imposing center back dominates the San Jose box and is a threat on set pieces as well.|
|Yannick Djalo||Dynamic midfielder was a terror in the Quakes' win over the Fire. Maybe the Simon Dawkins replacement they've been waiting for.|
Because there's two ways this could go. Last season the team completely collapsed after a couple of bad results at the end of the season and had to limp into (and out of) the playoffs only weeks after holding a commanding position in the Supporters Shield race. On the other hand, after a similar shaming in New England this season, the team went on to win 4 of the next 5 games. Sigi and the front office made a lot of comments in the offseason about building a team with better character. We'll see if that character is enough to elicit a positive response from the last match rather than a destructive one.
But on to the Quakes. I think I've mentioned before that sometimes it's a stretch to tease playing style out of statistical data and sometimes it bashes you in the face. San Jose's stats are of the face-bashing variety because bashing faces has pretty much been their gameplan. Despite new leadership in Mark Watson, the team still plays the old Frank Yallop style. They are first in the league in headed shots, shots off of set pieces, aerial duels won, aerial duels lost, and long passes into the attacking third. Meanwhile, they're last or near last in throughballs, open play shots, and fast breaks. This has been a route one team through and through.
But it's clear that the team has designs on changing that style (and reputation). This week they announced the signing of their own Argentine DP playmaker — Matías Pérez García — to follow in the footsteps of Guillermo Schelotto, Javier Morales, and Diego Valeri. They will no doubt rely on him to be a keystone of the offense, and at 5'5" he won't be winning aerial battles — he'll be much more inclined to thread through-balls than launch crosses. If he plays withdrawn behind Wondolowski, then there'll be no room for Stephen Lenhart and Alan Gordon at all, swiftly putting an end to the reign of the Bash Brothers. But switching styles that radically takes time, and especially if they fall behind I expect them to revert to what's familiar. It's probably of little consequence this weekend anyway, since Garcia is unlikely to have his P-1 visa sorted. And even if he does, it's hard to imagine him being involved as more than a sub having trained with the team only once this week.
Instead they'll likely continue to rely on playmaking from Shea Salinas, of the cross-from-the-wings variety. The Sounders' previous match against San Jose this season didn't feature Salinas. In fact, it didn't feature Wondolowski, Victor Bernardez, Gordon, or Lenhart either. Seattle earned a deceptive 1-0 win (in that they had a huge number of chances that were stopped by desperate defending) against what you'd politely call an Earthquakes reserve squad. So it's hard to predict how they'll match up this time.
In their last match, the Quakes were rampant against the dismal Chicago Fire, winning 5-1 with goals from 5 different players. It should be noted that neither Gordon nor Lenhart were involved and none of those goals were headers, perhaps suggesting that the transformation is already complete. If so, it will be built not only on the new DP Garcia but also on young Portuguese midfielder Djalo, who played a major part in all 5 of those goals. He scored one and assisted on two others and created the turnover and/or was an important part of the buildup in the other two. If he's given space like he was against Chicago (or like Seattle gave Donovan last week), he will punish the Sounders repeatedly.
The other interesting aspect of that transformation from bash-ball to joga bonita is the impact of Chard Marshall's possible absence for another game. Against a barrage of high crosses looking for heads, he would be by far Seattle's most important defender. He's still an excellent positional defender against the ground game, of course. But his dominance against aerial balls is unique in the league. So if the Sounders defense can train a week to get their positioning and timing right, he may not be as missed as he would be against Lenhart.
That win over the Fire will no doubt feel like a transitional moment for the Earthquakes, who still sit at the bottom of the West. And the hammering at the hands of the Galaxy threatens to be a transitional moment for the Sounders, who still sit at the top. But the Galaxy are one of the top teams in the league and the Fire are one of the worst. Maybe there's no narrative here other than good teams playing well and bad teams playing poorly. The Sounders can put both transformation narratives to bed with a confident win. A draw leaves questions unanswered. A loss, which would be the third in four games, would force us to take the cover off the panic button as flashbacks to the end of last season start haunting our sleep.