Match Preview: San Jose Earthquakes vs. Vancouver Whitecaps
The San Jose Earthquakes play under the lights for the first time at Avaya Stadium on Saturday, and their date for the occasion is the Vancouver Whitecaps.
Red-hot (4-0-1 in their last 5) and lighting-fast, this isn't the team we want to be facing to build back confidence after a two-game skid. Here, I'll take a look at what's going on above the 49th parallel, what's happening closer at home, and how I think it might shake out.
One thing I'm certain of is that these guys will not sit back and buckle down like RSL: they have talented and explosive attackers at an assortment of positions. Octavio Rivero, the 23-year-old Uruguayan, leads the line with an imposing frame, clinical finishing, and deceptive pace. If those traits sound dangerous, the results match: 5 goals in 6 matches currently tops the young MLS charts. The wings are stocked with speed demons like Eric Hurtado and Kekuta Manneh, and Darren Mattocks. That doesn't even include tricky Nicolas Mezquida, who has been getting starts lately. They'll be putting pressure all over our back line.
Yet another strength is the midfield triangle of Gershon Koffie-Matias Laba-Pedro Morales, who have a lot of quality between them and can easily control the middle of the park. Morales in particular is a dangerous playmaker who will be pulling the strings on the attack. One saving grace is that Koffie has been injured and young Russell Taibert is expected to fill his place. The scariest thing is that of all the players I've yet mentioned, just two (Morales and Mattocks) are above the age of 24, not to mention a host of young prospects in the reserves. This team could be a force to be reckoned with in coming seasons.
If there's a weak point, it's at the back, where the look is a bit more veteran. Dane David Ousted is their keeper and is one of the better ones in MLS. The preferred center-back tandem of Kendall Watson and Diego Rodriguez both pulled up lame Tuesday against the Crew, and neither are expected back at the weekend. In their place will be Pa-Madou Kah, who reportedly looked shaky in that match, and a yet-to-be-named partner. The two options are both young and unproven Americans: Christian Dean and Tim Parker. Their rightback is former Quake Steven Beitashour, who has performed admirably in his duties, but the left back will be manned by lightly-regarded 19-year-old Canadian Sam Adekugbe. If the Earthquakes are going to win this game, it's by Wondo imposing himself on this fragile back line.
The last factor I'll mention is that the Caps did have a midweek game, which is a greater fitness challenge than MLS teams usually face. They're a little short on depth due to injury and roster construction, so they won't have the luxury of much rotation in order to compensate.
Quakes Status Report
Defense is a personnel problem for us as well, with left backs Shaun Francis and Jordan Stewart out. The only other fullback on roster, Marvell Wynne, has been out for about 2 weeks now with a hamstring issue but coach Dominic Kinnear hasn't declared one way or the other if he'll be ready to go for this Saturday. Paulo Renato is likely still out at center back, though that position is better stocked. Expect Cordell Cato to serve somewhere wide along the back line, depending on personnel and formation. Left winger Innocent was suspended for this game after leading into an aerial challenge with his elbow last weekend, simultaneously leaving the Quakes short one DP and one formation dilemma. Otherwise, everyone is available that isn't a long-term absence (Sherrod, Lenny, etc).
After the RSL game, players and coaches were visibly frustrated with losing two in a row and thought they had made enough effort to come back with at least some of the points. Dom Kinnear is about as tactically flexible as they come, both between games and within them, and I trust his soccer mind to make the right kinds of adjustments to bring out the best in these guys.
Formation depends heavily on Wynne's availability, so I'm hedging my bets and predicting one for both scenarios. First, if he's in the lineup:
There will be plenty of pace through the full-backs so I went with creative wingers in front of them rather than doubling up on speed. I think this double-pivot of JBP and Alashe, which hasn't been yet tried this year, will be one of the best possible mixtures of defensive solidity and ability to push forward. I also think that Kinnear rates Adam Jahn much higher than the fanbase nowadays, and sees the problem more of how little he was able to link with players immediately underneath him. Similarly, I think Wondo's problem has been an inability to get the ball high up the pitch. A two-striker system could solve both problems.
Second, if Wynne is out:
Here, we need to get a bit creative. Salinas and Cato will serve as wing-backs on their natural side, since both have decent defensive skillsets especially if they have three centerbacks to back them up. Harden's numbers have been excellent so far, though Renato or Koval could serve in his place as well. We know Kinnear has a 3-back look up his sleeve from the end of the RSL game, although I think in an ideal world he wouldve constructed the personnel differently. We have the same 2-striker tandem up top here, for the same reason, with MPG in the hole to play his more typical role. The double pivot here features Koval instead of JBP in order to be a bit more athletic and adventurous to compensate for the three center backs.
My prediction is that this is a wide open match, and that a pissed-off and determined Earthquakes team feeds off the energy of playing under the lights. Vancouver counter-punches dangerously, but its flimsy back line can't hold on: 3-2 Goonies.