California Clasico: San Jose Earthquakes Training Update
With just two days to go before the biggest rivalry match of the year, the Earthquakes took to the training field loose and lively despite the 90 degree heat at their San Jose practice facility. Football.com got access to about an hour of scrimmages and interviews with coaches and players afterwards. Here are some of the biggest themes and takeaways:
While the Earthquakes boast quite a few locally-raised players, plenty also have experience with other soccer rivalries. Mike Fucito, a former Sounder and Harvard man, named Harvard-Yale the best rivalry he's been a part of by a hair due to its historical length, but otherwise found them hard to separate. Fatai Alashe, who played in fierce battles with Michigan while at Michigan State, said he had only begun to learn about the Clasico, said that the intensity the fans brought even to the preseason match against the Galaxy tipped him off to how much more this game means than usual.
Captain Chris Wondolowski, who has lived the rivalry for years, attributed its intensity to "a lot of the games that have been played, a lot of epic batttles, playoff games, comebacks. Being from the same state, and it goes across all sports." As for his favorite Clásico? 2012, because of how it contributed to the team's finish, rather than the wild 2013 comeback. This year's edition is also more simply about league position, chasing a team that is 6 points ahead in the standings but that has also played four more games. Per Wondolowski, "Win lose or draw, we're going to be in that race, all the way to the end."
Head Coach Dominic Kinnear left no doubt with his opinion, saying "I've always thought this [rivalry] was the best one." Kinnear should know, not only with a long history with the Quakes organization but also growing up in the Bay Area. "Back in the day there were the right antagonists on both teams...it probably has the most history, upsets, drama, good players on both sides, players going back and forth; it has everything to make good storylines."
In training, the scrimmage pitted the first team against a scout team that set itself up in a flat 4-4-2 system very similar to the one utilized by Bruce Arena's Galaxy.
Given Galaxy's 10 goals scored in their last two outings, I asked Kinnear about what his plans were to slow down LA's attack: "You can't give [Robbie Keane] space...He floats, and he's a smart player. You gotta put pressure on the ball, and when he does have the ball, you have to defend him honestly and stay with runners. That goal by Robbie Rogers last night was a perfect part of what he can add to the game."
Wondolowksi had a similar scouting report: "They're a very good team...there's a lot of things we have to consider, and we'll be watching a lot more tape. Especially with Robbie Keane back in the lineup, they're a different team than they were in prior months." Alashe, for his part, played down the importance of reacting to his opponent's strengths and instead said he was going to focus executing his own team's gameplan.
All teams have to deal with injury, suspension, and international duty in MLS, and the Quakes will be faced with quite a few of those problems shortly.
Chris Wondolowski (USA) and Cordell Cato (Trinidad and Tobago) will leave for the Gold Cup immediately after the California Clasico, missing between two weeks and a month depending on mid-tournament roster adjustments and how far their nations advance. Kinnear confirmed that while all positions will have to step up to compensate for losing their team Captain, we can expect to see Tommy Thompson fill the specific void in his natural central attacking midfield position.
While it may come at the expense of his club commitments, Wondolowski is on the whole proud to have the call up, saying: "It's a true honor. I love being able to represent [my] country, especially at the Gold Cup. The last Gold Cup was one of my fondest memories." Despite his confidence in a win in that tournament, however, he cautioned that this year's field was deeper and tougher than years past, particularly beyond the two powers USA and Mexico.
In terms of injury, the only two players definitively out this weekend are the two long-term issues with forwards Innocent and Steven Lenhart. Marvell Wynne (left hamstring) and Ty Harden (right hamstring) were both limited in training and listed as "questionable" but the staff is hopeful that Wynne, in particular, will be a go this weekend against the Galaxy. David Bingham also missed training on Thursday, but participated on Tuesday and no injury or other reason for absence was reportered. Fans should expect him between the sticks in Stanford Stadium.
Otherwise, the Quakes have a clean bill of health and no suspended players, leading to an unusually full set of players available for selection.
Reflecting On Midseason Progress
With approximately half the season in the books, players and coaches were asked about the influence of players through a half season and how they were doing against their own goals. Kinnear, who remains famously out-of-tune with the social media trend of the moment, maintained that his expectations today are the same as they were prior to the season: Making the playoffs. While the number of games San Jose has in hand on those above it in the table presents an opportunity, Kinnear emphasized that he never counted on points he hadn't already put in the bank, but that he felt good about the prospect of making the final 12.
One man whose influence seems to be peaking lately is Argentine playmaker Matias Pérez-García, but according to his teammates and coaches, it's more of a plateau than a peak: "A lot of people only look at certain stats and don't watch whole games," said Wondolowski, "I think he's done a great job in every game. He adds another dynamic. He opens up a lot of things for other players...I thought the criticism was a bit unfair early, I don't think it's a breakout, I think he's been doing it all year."
Kinnear agreed, saying "You can point to the Columbus game. He looked like the best player on the field....[Seattle] was his most productive game obviously, but his play over the last month and a half has been right up there."
While Pérez-García's recent form is certainly an improvement on last year, the true breakout performer is defensive midfielder Fatai Alashe. With Alashe in the starting XI, the Quakes have managed 21 points in 11 games. Without him, they have just 1 point in four games. Kinnear, unsurprisingly for those who know his style, spoke dismissively about the over-interpretation of small samples, but did say "I think we're a better team when he's on the field for us."
Wondolowski added that "we saw from the first game...we've seen in practice day in and day out, I've been saying for a while he's one of our best players."
Assessing his own performance, Alashe said "I think it's definitely been positive so far. It's a good start. There's a lot of things I still need to work on...I have good examples in front of me of guys I can learn from." He identified his strengths as good work with back line and denying possession to opposing #10s, but he wants to work on being calm on the ball and playing the ball forward more proactively.
Alashe's 12 appearances with the Quakes and around a half dozen more with the US U-23s means that he's already nearly eclipsed the total fixture load of a collegiate season, but Kinnear seemed generally optimistic he could handle the increased work down the stretch. "You have to watch out for the rookies, and that's important for us to at times tell them to take it easy. A lot of that comes down to him too, and what he does off the field. We have to make sure we always give him good reminders about the proper attitude to be a professional soccer player and get ready for the game."
Fatai also seemed unworried: "Our trainers do a good job taking care of all of our guys. Our coaches also keep an eye on that...I don't see it being too much of an issue"
The match will kick off at 7:30pm this Saturday, June 27, in Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto.