Desperate Quakes Top SKC, Bask In "Based God" Blessing
Under the Friday night lights on national TV, you can't always count on a fireworks show from MLS, let alone a Dominic Kinnear-skippered side. But with a playoff berth quickly slipping from their grasp, a quixotic endorsement from a local hip-hop artist, and the kind of sentimental feeling that comes with the last match of the season, this was not going to be a snoozer.
From the off, the burning desire to get three points manifested itself in the form of a dizzying density of dribbles and showy flicks from the hosts. Matias Perez-Garcia, in particular, appeared to enter an altered state in which he believed he could do anything. The results were equal parts spectacular and amateurish, which made the match thrilling, if not exactly beautiful. Chances were generated in industrial quantities, forcing SKC keeper Tim Melia into a heroic seven saves.
While they entered the break without scoring, they wouldn't have to wait long in the second for the breakthrough. Having been instructed by Chris Wondolowski at the break that he was finding space at the far post, Shea Salinas whipped in an excellent cross to precisely that spot, which the captain settled and put back across goal for Anibal Godoy to run onto and stuff into an empty net for the 1-0 lead. While no more goals would fly in the rest of the way, it was the most consistently dangerous this offense has looked for quite some time.
Perhaps more notable, however, was the defensive effort. The hosts gave Marvell Wynne his first start at center-half all season to fill in for the suspended Victor Bernardez, with the rest of the XI typical since the switch to flat 4-4-2 in August. It was an inspired choice, since the man himself was on form, chipping in some athletic tackles and staying deeply positionally solid, backing down from no challenge and compensating for his undersized 5'9" frame.
It also allowed Fatai Alashe and Anibal Godoy to play shoulder-to-shoulder in a double pivot that denied passing lanes and possession through the middle, disrupting Kansas City's primary route of attack. While the likes of Feilhaber, Zusi, Dwyer, and Nemeth are amongst the most dangerous attackers in the league on their day, on this one, they looked rather pedesterian.
While the Quakes certainly won the day and deserved the points, there was a single moment where the result was in doubt. An awkward bounce in the 9th minute put Dom Dwyer all alone with just David Bingham to beat, only for the keeper to pull out a miraculous kick save and keep the back of his net clean. From there, the drama was pleasantly limited.
Here's what stood out to me on the night:
Central Midfield Remains Key To 4-4-2
In a sense, the Quakes current tactical approach isn't all that different from Mark Watson's last season: they play a flat 4-4-2 with Wondo underneath a target forward. The night-and-day difference is as simple as the upgrade between Koval/Cronin and Alashe/Godoy. The latter is incomparably more athletic, tidier with the pass, and better at reading the game.
Essentially, the two central roles are so important to the overall formation that they more or less define what's possible at every other posiiton. Will the target striker (Amarikwa) get good enough service to hold it up or get played in on goal? Will the underneath striker (Wondolowski) be able to get high enough on the pitch to get into goalscoring positions without sacrificing possession in the middle? Will the wingers (Salinas/Garcia) have someone covering their back defensively so that they can drive forward and take attacking risks? Will the fullbacks (Cato/Francis) be able to do the same? Will the center backs stay at home or will they get pulled apart trying to cover too much ground?
In every case, the success of each position group mentioned above depends on the positioning and possession dictated by those two midfield engines. The more defensive solidity they bring, the freer the front 4 are to attack. The more comfort they offer on the ball, the easier it is to push and maintain possession higher up the pitch.
It's not an accident that the entire team looks best with Godoy and Alashe manning the double pivot, even when they aren't the best version of themsleves. Alashe's passing against SKC, for example, was dreadful with the one notable exception of a 55th-minute through-ball to Amarikwa that made my heart skip a beat. Regardless, no other pairing through the middle has made the other players on the pitch look so good, which is a shame, since Godoy of course will miss the Dallas match. Which reminds me...
Depth Will Be Tested One Last Time
On the road against current Supporters' Shield favorites FC Dallas, the personnel deck will shuffle yet again as that very central midfield linchpin, Anibal Godoy, will miss through suspension. It's been a rotating carousel of suspensions the last few months, including Marc Pelosi, Fatai Alashe, Clarence Goodson, and Victor Bernardez. Add in the slew of minor injuries, and significant number of major ones, and the team's limited depth has been tested repeatedly.
Thankfully, they've responded well. Shaun Francis, in particular, has gone from whipping boy to contributor over the course of the season. Cordell Cato has been an indispensible utility man. Shea Salinas, second choice in left midfield to start the season, is one of the team's best performers since the formation switch.
For Dallas, the team should look much closer to its ideal form, with Bernardez and Goodson the center back tandem and young guns Pelosi and Alashe manning the double pivot. Cato and MPG are both options at right wing, while the rest of the positions are more or less no-brainers on the team sheet. But for anyone waiting to see Innocent suit up in blue one last time this season, don't hold your breath.
At least, that is, not until the playoffs.
- From here on in, the Quakes must play the part of scoreboard-watchers with their playoff fate outside of their own hands. A Portland loss on Sunday puts their fate back in their own hands, and every Quakes player I asked said they'd be Galaxy fans for the night. Seattle and Kansas City could also each fall below the playoff redline, but they'd need to stumble more badly than Portland to be vulnerable to San Jose.
- Referee Kevin Stott had a nightmare tonight. He tried to preempt bad feeling by calling the first 10 minutes tight, but after a series of increasingly bizarre and erratic calls, the desperation attending the occasion was matched by its physical hostility. The low-lights featured an almost-never-seen 6-second violation, failure to show red to Dom Dwyer for a wipeout tackle in the 83rd, and a general inability to control tempers on the pitch.
- The presence of Lil' B was a social media hit, attracting attention from every corner of the stadium and the broader MLS universe. That being said, only a few of the players I spoke to afterwards seemed to pay it much heed, with Wondo tipping his hat but many others clearly seeing it as a distraction.
- Chris Wondolowski was awarded Team MVP and Clarence Goodson was named Defensive MVP, both via media vote. My ballot had those two names on the top of their categories, although Goodson very nearly took my number one vote for the main prize too. He's consistently stood out to me as the best player on the pitch, at least in black and blue, and the value of his defensive efforts is very nearly the equal of the work of the Quakes' primary goalscorer.
- Shea Salinas was given the "Andrew Bedard Spirit of the Game Award/Humanitarian of the Year" prize, no surprise around these parts, for his community work and sportsmanship. There are plenty of nice guys on the Quakes, but Salinas may well be the nicest.
- This was a good first season for Avaya stadium. The upgrade in quality on Buck Shaw is indescribable, and the team reported selling out all 15 MLS games it hosted, although of course some were more sparsely attended than others. That puts a solid revenue base under the front office to work with in the future, and fans might not realize how much easier it is to convince free agents to sign on to a team whose facilities look professional, even if the franchise itself is little changed otherwise.