What Are They All About? San Jose Earth Quakes
Playing below expectations. This past weekend the Chicago Fire lost on the road in Philadelphia. Perhaps more shocking than the 3-1 result was the display itself. A match that could have seen them gain ground on NYCFC for the coveted bye week in the playoffs saw Chicago string together a lackluster defensive display and added a few moments to Matt Lampson’s head scratching moments highlight reel. Ultimately, fixtures against struggling opposition cannot be a stumbling block if the Fire are to be taken seriously.
Injuries to key members of the squad have plagued Chicago throughout the final stretch of the season, but roster depth exists for a reason. Furthermore, the relatively easy stretch of final matches has been taken far too casually by the squad and they may find themselves regretting missed opportunities. The Fire will certainly make the playoffs but at this rate they will not be entering the post season with any momentum or rhythm. They have four matches remaining to somehow right the ship, starting with a trip to San Jose this Wednesday (9:30 CT CSN Chicago Plus).
San Jose find themselves amid a strange season typified by a lack of consistency in results. You never quite know which Earthquakes side is going to show up on any given day, a fact that was not remedied in the wake of dismissing Dom Kinnear. Their recent 4-0 loss at the hands of lowly DC United needs to be juxtaposed with wins against the likes of Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver to illuminate the Jekyll and Hyde nature of this side. Although they fare much better at Avaya Stadium than they do on the road, the nature of San Jose’s season should offer Chicago some hope heading into the midweek match. Will the Fire clinch a playoff spot (with the help of a poor Montreal result), or will San Jose continue to fight for their own playoff position? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
San Jose Form Guide (last five matches): L-W-L-W-L
Previous League Result: A 4-0 away loss to DC United.
Formation: 4-4-2; Tarbell; Salinas, Imperiale, Affolter, Sarkodie; Qaisaishvili, Jungwirth, Yueill, Hoesen; Urena, Wondolowski
Strengths: Although Chris Leitch and the Earthquakes may not yet know their fate, what is certain is that the squad’s tenacity will come through in their remaining fixtures. We can talk about ability and tactics below but their fight simply cannot be questioned. Let’s see where they might succeed on Wednesday.
Dangerous Duo: There is nothing more worrisome for the Fire right now than a pair of in-form versatile strikers. That is exactly what the Earthquakes have with Marco Urena and Chris Wondolowski.
When San Jose signed Urena as a TAM player in the offseason many onlookers were skeptical. Their doubts seemed to be warranted as the Costan Rican striker struggled to make a positive impact in the first half of the season. In fact, he managed to score just one goal prior to the summer. However, a revival is seemingly on the cards with Urena notching three goals and three assists since then for his club and also single-handedly leading Costa Rica to a victory over the USMNT as they close in on a World Cup berth. Leitch’s ability to shuffle San Jose’s lineup in a way that allows more direct play into the feet of Urena has done wonders to not only provide the Tico with more possession and scoring opportunities but has also allowed him to gain confidence with a more clearly defined role. With Urena being dropped for the World Cup Qualifiers on October 6th, he’ll want to prove he belongs in the national team fold with another brilliant performance against Chicago.
Whereas you know exactly where Urena thrives positionally, the cleverness and guile that come from Wondolowski’s fourteen years of experience make marking him a constant guessing game. He is now in his eighth consecutive double-digit scoring season and can do it all. He’s scored PKs, free kicks, headers, right footed goals, left footed goals, etc. etc. His ability to continually keep defenders guessing has been showcased in San Jose’s most recent matches by tricky set piece runs against Houston, TFC, and on his goal against LA. With Kappelhof and Meira struggling to rebuild their chemistry in Chicago’s match at the weekend and the Fire’s general inability to mark opponents on set pieces, you can bet Wondo will be looking forward to the encounter.
We Like Holland Too: With Chicago’s signing of Kappelhof, Goossens, and DeLeeuw, along with Philadelphia’s Dutch themed revival under Earnie Stewart, there has been a bit of a Dutch flavor about MLS in recent seasons. The Earthquakes apparently didn’t want to be left out and signed Danny Hoesen from the same Dutch Cup winning FC Groningen side that Kap and DeLeeuw played for. With four assists and three goals from the right flank he isn’t doing poorly by any stretch of the imagination and his repurposed role as a midfielder has been largely due to his comfort and skill on the ball. He’ll prove a frustrating force for Accam as the Dutchman does not forgo his defensive duties.
On the opposite flank, San Jose bolstered their squad with the signing of Valeri Qazaishvili, who although not Dutch, spent most of his career playing in Holland and brings that quintessential technical ability to the field. He’s tallied three goals in just nine appearances and has the ability to cut inside on a dime and shoot from range in his arsenal. Nemanja Nikolic played with Qazaishvili in Poland as their Legia side won the Polska Ekstraklasa. If the Fire don’t hear about the Georgian’s danger from Paunovic and the technical staff, Nikolic will be well aware of the threat that the diminutive midfielder poses.
Bernardez to the Rescue: Since we’re singling out individual talent in this segment, no such preview would be complete without the legend that is Victor Bernardez. At the spry age of thirty-five, the Honduran international is in his sixth season with San Jose and has become the quintessential model of a CONCACAF defender. Big, strong, full of confidence and quick to make no-nonsense tackles. Although no other defender has scored more own goals in MLS’ history, those embarrassing moments are overshadowed by his aerial ability and the last-minute goals he’s put in the correct net. He’s only featured in twenty-two of San Jose’s matches, but we have a feeling that when Nikolic and Accam are already tired you’ll see Bernardez subbed in late to remind them of the league’s physicality.
Back to Cali: Although the Quakes have had an up and down season, they have had their best spells at home. They’ve lost just once at Avaya–a Cali Clasico loss to LA–and if the playoff race was decided solely on home points accrued, the Quakes would only have Sporting KC and the Whitecaps ahead of them. When you add Chicago’s road struggles and the fact that the Fire have not won in California since Marco Pappa and Austin Berry notched goals in a 2-1 victory over Chivas USA in May of 2012, the possibility of leaving San Jose with a result becomes even slimmer.
Weaknesses: The Quakes may have managed to climb above the red line for now, but Houston and Dallas both have games in hand on them and should the unthinkable happen in Minnesota’s remaining schedule even they could still reach San Jose. There are reasons why there has been so much turmoil surrounding the club this season, let’s take a look at where they might struggle on Wednesday.
Negativity: We’re not talking about mentality here. San Jose currently find themselves with a -20 goal differential. Only DC United can best that unwanted statistic and only does so by two goals. They have been far from clinical in scoring (only Colorado and DC have tallied fewer goals), a fact exacerbated by the gulf between Wondolowski’s eleven strikes and the plethora of midfielders stuck on three; but they’ve been equally as bad in defending. San Jose has allowed fifty-two goals this season, the highest such total from a playoff positioned team, and don’t look quite right when it comes to their back line.
David Bingham has recently found himself on the bench after stringing together a 61.7% save percentage from his twenty-three appearances earlier in the season, the second worst such percentage among keeprs starting in more than twenty games. His thirty-five goals against have forced Leitch into opening up the goalkeeping job for competition. Sophomore contributor Andrew Tarbell has not exactly capitalized on his opportunity, conceding seventeen in his seven appearances. Many of the allowed goals have been goalkeeper blunders, a worrying fact given that Bingham has often been seen as one of the best in his trade (he featured in the 2016 MLS All Star match after an impressive string of seasons).
Additionally, Salinas and Sarkodie have their hands full with pushing forward on the wings, while the maiden voyage of Affolter and the lack of MLS experience from Imperiale have not been convincing as alternatives to an aging Bernardez. Allowing Patrick Mullins to score four goals from central positions in one match, two of which were off of rebounds, is the most blatant recent example of a disregard for defensive essentials but there are plenty to choose from throughout the season.
No matter where the Quakes finish in the table, they will need to address their defensive issues in the offseason and add key DP pieces on the attacking end of things if they wish to compete next season. No team can hit double digits in negative goal differential and expect to succeed in this league.
Identity Amidst Late Additions: Part of the necessity for more additions in the offseason is that this San Jose franchise find themselves in a transitionary period. Since their move to Avaya they’ve been trying to catch up to MLS 3.0 and the growing competency of the Western Conference markets. Although results were not drastically different under Dom Kinnear, part of the reason for his departure was the ownership’s concept of what a winning side in modern MLS looks like. Kinnear’s single dimension mentality may have made him a legend in the league’s early years but the flashiness of franchises like Portland, NYCFC, and most recently Atlanta is seemingly the way of the future and he just couldn’t cut it.
This means that many of the additions made in the summer window are part of a core that is being built for next season and that this squad has a mixed identity of a future that is yet to come and a past that is seemingly haunting them. Playing in such a limbo can be detrimental to cohesiveness and Chicago could find themselves celebrating in the gaps presented by such a scenario. If doubt starts to creep in for players that know they are on the fringes, this match could unravel. Results this season seem to indicate San Jose’s Goonie antics are as much a thing of the past as Kinnear’s tactics, so the Fire need to press early.
Prediction: With two sides who are currently battling schizophrenic tendencies, we have no idea what to write in this segment. With Atlanta leap-frogging Chicago in the standings with a match in hand and Columbus breathing down their necks, you would expect the Fire to be motivated enough to perform well against San Jose. However, the reality is that they might not have the tools. Chicago 1-1 San Jose. Drew Conner notches for Chicago, Quincy Amarikwa equalizes off the bench for the Quakes.