Earthquakes Preview: Road Warriors or Roadkill?
MLS scheduling has always felt a bit bush-league to me, and the Quakes will get both barrels of it this week: in a 7 day period, they have to play three games in three cities across the American west, none of them their own.
I can't remember an MLS team being asked to play three away games in a week, particularly when none are due to rescheudling, in my 20 years following the league. BIzarrely, it follows a period of 14 days without a single match.
On the one hand, San Jose needed the time off in the worst way: talisman Chris Wondolowski and Marvell Wynne haven't looked right since picking up minor calf injuries, and Jordan Stewart will fill in the bottomless pit that has been the left back position this year. On the other hand, three games in seven days, spread across three different cities (none of which is their own) isn't easy for anyone. Just look to our last home match, when the usually-formidable Whitecaps looked like fraying thread in their third match of the week, and they even had the advantage of a home game in that stretch.
So what are we in for?
Real Salt Lake (May 1)
The Quakes very nearly get Salt Lake at the right time, with the hosts so affected by injury and suspension they weren't able to field a full bench for their bare-bottomed spanking against New England last weekend. I say very nearly because it appears the crisis has passed at least somewhat, with stud playmaker Javier Morales and US international Nick Rimando likely making their way back from the training table, and both Jamison Olave and Sebastian Saucedo coming back from suspension. Key players who remain out include F Joao Plata and D Chris Schuler.
Earlier this month, RSL came to Avaya and won on a spectacular Morales dagger off a set piece after digging in some almost-literal trenches in defense. After the match, the Quakes players and coaches were clearly frustrated with the lack of a point, feeling they had performed well enough at the back for a draw and capable of a much better performance going forward. Kyle Beckerman even went so far as to acknowledge this redemption factor in an interview in the Salt Lake Tribune. Tactically speaking, RSL will almost certainly set up in the same manner, so look for Dom Kinnear, he of the deeper available roster and long layoff prior to the match, to make the adaptations. My guess is he'll stick with a single pivot, manned by Fatai Alashe, with four attacking midfielders in front of him and a lone striker. Not anticipating a rigorous press, I'd imagine Kinnear wants to focus on possession to break down the rugged back line, and that might call for an unusually creative, on-the-ball sort of attacking lineup rather than pace and space. My hope would therefore be Innocent up top with Salinas/Wondo/MPG/TT from left to right in the line behind him, with the improved fullback situation providing the width. Something tells me that Kinnear doesn't see it the same way, and if I were a betting man, I'd guess the same setup but Nyassi instead of Thompson for a more traditional right wing role, not in the least because TT has been in Austria on U20 duty and therefore missed some of recent training.
All that being said, this is a talented squad, its getting a lot of its key players back, and Rio Tinto stadium has been a difficult place to win points. If I had to predict, I'd say that this one has ugly draw written all over it, with the Quakes shaking off rust and poor form, so I'll go with 1-1.
Houston (May 5)
Ah, that sweet #narrative. The deeply unsentimental Dominic Kinnear returns to the team he lead for nearly a decade, so expect a lot to be written about it and literally none of it indulged by the man himself. Nothing wrong with that, we can just go with the traditional grudge-match-against-the-franchise-that-left-us line instead.
The Dynamo haven't looked particularly sharp this year, and they could well be in a bit of a rebuilding phase after years of consistent success. There are some names you've heard of, like Ricardo Clark, Brad Davis, and DeMarcus Beasley from the USMNT. The two star-level talents are Raul Rodriguez and Boniek Garcia (who sounds likely to return to the side by the time they get the Quakes). But this group is getting older, the roster seems a bit poorly constructed, and they've yet to deliver a particularly convincing result on the year. In my opinion, and this is the first time in a while we could say this, the Quakes man-for-man aren't outmatched talent-wise against the Dynamo. Also, logic would seem to favor the coach playing his former team rather than vice versa, and it's roughly in the sweet spot of sufficient rest v. sufficient game time.
That's why, even though it's on the road and Houston sits above us on the table, I'm calling a 3-1 victory for the visitors as Dom secretly emphasizes the game and doesn't rotate too heavily.
Colorado (May 8)
We'll be running on fumes by this one, and so will the #narrative. Nyassi and Wynne both played in Colorado back in the day (which Marvell had to remind me when I asked him what turned out to be a stupid question about developing chemistry up the right flank), and Sam Cronin was unceremoniously shipped in the other direction this offseason. So I guess this'll be a boring one on that score, then.
Colorado sits at the basement of the crowded Western Conference table, but the results haven't actually been all that dire: they include a 4-0 waxing of mighty FC Dallas and an impressive 1-1 road draw against NYRB. The problem has been too many draws, and in general too few goals scored. Ordinarily that indicates a team underachieving, so don't write them off as a bottom-feeder yet.
The back line has some real talent but it's very young, and the personnel selection hasn't been consistent. Despite heavy investment in the central midfield, whether through injuries (Sarvas and Cronin) or poor form (Pittinari) it's been a huge problem area for the Rapids. The only real star on this team is attacking midfielder Dillon Powers, and the rest of the attack is fairly unheralded. No surprise, then, that they've struggled to score goals. This team has a core of young American talent with potential, but is the only roster that you could look at in the conference and say it's a step behind the rest, particularly with Sarvas out.
For San Jose, rotation will be deeply necessary by this time, especially if it wasn't done earlier in the week, and as I said above, I think we have reason to believe it won't be. It'll also be played at altitude, a bit higher than RSL even, making the task of a third away game in seven days even harder. All that, combined with the aforementioned glimmers of good performances, has me looking at this as a classic let-down game.
I'm going to hedge a bit on this projection by noting the path-dependence of results, which is to say that a run of good results against RSL and Houston might give this group belief that it's an honest-to-God playoff team and could therefore tough out a draw in an unfavorable environment, or even steal a win. Any letdowns, though, and this trip's frustrations will start to compound with all the difficult circumstances. Therefore, while I predict 4 points from the first two matches against better teams, I'm predicting the Quakes fall on their faces a bit on this one and lose 1-0.