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Earthquakes Scouting Report: Kinnear Me Now?

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A look at the new-look Earthquakes, who brought back the old skipper to revive a fading franchise.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The offseason story for the San Jose Earthquakes was the return of Dominic Kinnear as head coach. Years after he scored the winning penalty kick to earn the Seattle Sounders an A-League championship, Kinnear was the assistant coach for San Jose's two MLS Cup wins —in 2001 and 2003 — and as head coach guided them to a Supporters' Shield in 2005 before relocating with the rest of the club to Houston.

Now he's BACK, to resurrect a club that — other than winning an incredibly incongruous Supporters Shield in 2012 — hasn't finished above 6th in the West since its post-relocation relaunch. A new coach and a new stadium will combine, they hope, to return the Earthquakes to the glory days of yore.

Key Players
Chris Wondolowski Scores 15 goals a year with nothing but his superpower of invisibility. Best in the league at losing his mark.
Victor Bernardez Titanic defender, but he'll have to demonstrate his mobility against Seattle's weaving attack.
Matías Pérez García Argentine playmaker will have to create the offense as well as put in a solid defensive shift to prevent the midfield from getting overrun.

But Kinnear is practical, and it's clear that he's set up his team — the team that was ranked 18th out of 19 teams in scoring last season — to defend well for 90 minutes and try to occasionally hit teams on the break. To do that you need speed, and in the offseason they brought in a lot of it. Ex-Sounder burner Sanna Nyassi joins ex-Sounder burner Cordell Cato on the wing. Marvell Wynne brings speed to the defense. But most importantly they added DP Innocent Emeghara, who is called in the description of this Youtube video from 2011 "the fastest player in the world". And look, if you want to argue with the Internet that's your business but it has a pretty good track record.

In their opening week match against Dallas, that speed was deployed immediately to the flanks, with Wynne at fullback and Nyassi on the wing on the right side and left back Shaun Francis ranging up the other sideline. With Emeghara on the bench recovering from an injury, Kinnear went with a 4-2-3-1, with Chris Wondolowski alone up top in front of playmaking attacker Matias Perez Garcia and another playmaker on the left flank in Shea Salinas.

There are hints that Emeghara will be fit enough to start this weekend, which would allow San Jose to get their three DPs on the field simultaneously for the first time. But it presents a conundrum, because if the Quakes plan is to be defensively stout first (and you'd expect it to be even more the case on the road at a strong Seattle side), then a lineup that includes the three attacking DPs, Nyassi, and Salinas doesn't leave a lot of room for defensively solid players. Even right-back Wynne is known more for his pace than his defensive ability.

Adding Emeghara to the mix likely means a two-striker set in a 4-4-2 with, say, JJ Koval going to the bench to make room. That means just once central midfielder (Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi) screening central defenders Victor Bernardez and (if he also returns from injury) Clarence Goodson. Against Seattle's centrally-focused hydra, that just seems like madness. I don't know how Kinnear expect to square that circle. A possibility would be moving Emeghara to the right wing to replace Nyassi instead, leaving the pair of Koval and Pierazzi in the central defensive midfield.

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In the attack, I would expect San Jose to run hard at Seattle's fullbacks. Especially on the right, anticipate Wynne and Nyassi (or Emeghara) running all match at Leo Gonzalez, testing both his recovery ability and Brad Evans' ability to read the danger while still learning the center back position. On the other side Salinas is a great crosser of the ball, but with Alan Gordon gone and Steven Lenhart injured the Earthquakes have few targets for those balls. And with Chad Marshall in the match I wouldn't expect them to find any joy in the air, neutralizing that part of Salinas' game.

The Earthquakes and Kinnear have a lot of new pieces and they're still learning how to deploy them most effectively. The Sounders, on the other hand, are models of stability. There's no reason not to expect them to start the exact lineup that started in the opener against New England. Lineup stability counts for a lot in MLS and that gives Seattle another advantage to add to home field, the best attacking duo in the league, and the league's best defender. The Sounders will be strong favorites here, as long as they're wary of San Jose's pace on the counterattack.