Is San Jose's Season on the Brink?
In UK football journalism, this is about when we'd declare the San Jose Earthquakes a "team in crisis."
The Quakes have lost all three of there most recent matches (four if you count the Club América friendly), failed to score at any point in those 270 minutes, and never much looked like a genuine playoff team in MLS's fierce Western Conference. Dom Kinnear, in characteristic bluntness but uncharacteristically shaken, declared his team's effort against Houston the "worst performance of the season" and took personal responsibility for his failure to prepare his players.
In some ways, it smacks of last year when a fork in the road presented two paths: a dark-horse run to the playoffs, or checking out on the season early en route to a 15-game winless streak. Needless to say, the Quakes found themselves on the latter. The question for this year's fans, then, is will this version of the team do the same?
Social scientists, and their (qualified) brethren in sports analytics, discourage us from drawing strong inferences from weak data. There are far too many potential causes going into the slide to single one out with any authority, be it international absences, injuries, a roster still in transition, random chance, poor refereeing, stodgy tactics, etc. Moreover, we're really only talking about three games of data, prior to which most people would've said we were invincible, riding high, after three results that were as good as these three were bad.
But even if we can't isolate all the causal factors, we can paint the trend with a broader brush if we simply want to predict the future. For my money, there are three possible scenarios that this dip in form could fit into:
- A good team going through a minor dip that will soon return to the mean
- A mediocre team whose dip was actually the run of good form
- A previously good team is now a bad team due to a non-arbitrary cause, such as poor coaching
I think right off the bat we can rule out the idea that this team was fundamentally good and Kinnear steered it into the ground. Why?
First, because the roster Kinnear took over was a disaster, finishing dead last in the Western Conference. Dom himself fixed some of the more horrifying flaws, such as the black hole that was the right-back position with the savvy acquisition of veteran Marvell Wynne. Even with the upgrades, in my opinion the roster doesn’t stack up well in the West beyond about the 10th name on the sheet.
Second, in his short time on the job we’ve already seen a few stand-out examples of identifying and developing talent. Fatai Alashe was not in the top 4 hottest names going into the draft process, and the Quakes were replete with CDMs, yet Kinnear pulled the trigger on him anyway and has been deeply vindicated for his choice. He also resisted calls for MPG to be deployed in a wide area and his faith has clearly been repaid with the Argentine (when healthy) the team’s best player over the last two months. Victor Bernardez, although still imperfect, has taken a step forward from last year, and General Manager John Doyle explicitly credited Kinnear with that progress.
Lastly, tactically annoyed though some purists may be, he's put together a fabulous defense and an opportunistic offense that is capable of beating the league's very best. It's also inarguable that he's found a system that both gets his best players on the field and gets the most out of them, in general. It would be hard to identify anyone who underperformed their talent, other than perhaps Innocent, who had no preseason and just a handful of games to figure out his fit in the team. In fact, I'd argue that the recent surge in the use of second-team players has made it even more obvious that Dom has correctly identified his strongest hand, with Leandro Barrera and Tommy Thompson, for example, providing far less than fans had hoped, and less than the starters that currently keep them out of the lineup.
Where that leaves me, then, is the far stickier question of whether or not this is a good team underperforming or a mediocre team hitting its mark. Worth noting is that the best performances, against the best teams, have almost universally relied on a dose of good luck. The second Seattle game, the California Clásico, and the 1-0 upset of the West-leading Whitecaps all came against an opponent that was contesting its third match in a week, for example.
Most worrying, for me, are mediocre underlying stats such as chance-production, percentage and volume of shots on target, and scoring by players not named Chris Wondolowski. Simply put, this team can hold a lead but isn’t particularly good at generating one.
However, if you have a run of good form and you could choose for it to be defensively- or offensively-based, you’d always choose defensively. Strong defensive patterns tend to hold up better over the course of an entire season than offensive sparks. Of course, the naked eye could also tell you that this defense is the strength of the team, with arguably one of the better back fours in all of MLS and an emerging star in Alashe shielding it.
Moreover, offense is a fixable problem. Wondolowski, Cato (the team’s only impact sub), and MPG won’t be out forever. Amarikwa showed some real spark in his first start. Mark Sherrod has started only about a half dozen MLS games in his entire life, so he presumably has more room to grow. Innocent could hypothetically return late this season if we make a playoff run. Salinas and Nyassi are good complementary parts if not leading men. Thompson seems to be growing into himself steadily. Regardless of who is up there, the more games they have together the more productive they’ll be.
Before I declare anything too definitively, we should also look to the three ugly losses and compare them to the three game winning streak that preceded it in terms of pure luck. Against LA Galaxy in the Open Cup, San Jose actually outplayed the visitors for the lions share of the game, conceding a goal primarily due to a makeshift, second or perhaps even third choice back line, and therefore not implicating our ordinarily stout back four.
Portland was perhaps as under-manned as our offense has been all year, sans Wondo, Cato, Nyassi, and MPG, prior to the addition of Amarikwa, with the two ideal starters from preseason (Innocent and Lenhart) not even in consideration. The Timbers only managed to win on a flukish, possibly illegal goal, after being spared a penalty and straight red early in the match with a deliberate hand ball denial of a goal. Even some of the ordinarily-outstanding performers, such as Alashe, were tasked with roles outside of their comfort zone in order to plug the gaps, and understandably turned in lackluster performances. While the team performance was ugly and the result wasn’t favorable, it’s hard to worry too much about what it portends.
The tricky one, then, is Houston. By the second goal the wind had thoroughly whooshed out of the sails and the effort on the pitch did look fairly pathetic. The Quakes did have MPG, Amarikwa, and Nyassi available to them beyond the previous Sunday’s roster, but the result, and the performance, were actually worse.
Kinnear went with a surprisingly-Dutch 4-3-3 with genuine wingers, two creative midfielders, and a lone striker who floated around rather than camped out in the middle of the park. It was mostly out of necessity, with Wondolowski absent and Adam Jahn/Mark Sherrod deeply ineffectual. And on the whole, it was a good experience. The ball movement was occasionally delightful, there were passing lanes and runs we hadn't seen all year, and before the second, clinching goal, San Jose looked capable of winning.
To the extent that it fell apart, individual errors were directly to blame on both goals, the first when backup left-back Shaun Francis got eaten for lunch by Ricardo Clark, and the second when Sanna Nyassi attempted what is possibly the worst back pass of all time. There were a few genuine chances on goal, including a how-did-that-not-go-in moment when Clay Goodson dunked a corner and it somehow bounced off Fatai Alashe on the way in.
Therefore, as far as I can tell, a few different breaks of luck, a couple more first choice players returning from suspension, international duty, and injury, and that three-game skid (with just four goals conceded) doesn’t look quite so bad. What it does indicate, however, is the lack of a compelling plan B in attack. The great teams of MLS still have potency when playing with their second team, and have a secondary stylistic wrinkle when they need it. This roster needs a kick in the pants in this transfer window and a renewal project over the offseason in order to be capable of that productivity.
The one worrying thing to my eye was a lack of a fighting mentality that appeared in the side after the second goal against Houston, but it seemed deeply uncharacteristic and understandable given the circumstances. This team, these players, and Kinnear as a coach have proven time and again they are a team with fight, in all three matches, and even in the Club América friendly.
That leaves me with the conclusion that this is a team that has potential to be quite good, should the first team remain intact and the breaks go their way, but that the number of contingencies that depends upon probably being too many to be reliable. On the other hand, the floor isn’t too low either, since even at its worst San Jose doesn’t seem to play below a 7th-place-in-the-West level. Its defense will keep it a contender for the playoffs no matter what. As such, while I think we have a decently high floor and ceiling, I think it's far more likely we end up around the floor than the ceiling.
I’ve said it repeatedly on my podcast and on this site, from the beginning of the season: this is a lower-end playoff team in the West. That’s what they remained after the hot streak, and it’s where they remain after the cold streak too. Against LA Galaxy, in Carson, on the debut of Steven Gerrard, we could see all sorts of different outcomes, but I doubt strongly that the overall picture will change.
Unless we sign a fourth DP, of course.