Quakes Fade From Playoff Picture; Aren't Dead Yet
The San Jose Earthquakes could only manage a 1-1 home draw against the Vancouver Whitecaps in a crucial tie that paradoxically assured they would be above the playoff redline after a weekend of MLS play for the first time since May, yet also lowered their chances of staying there.
A failure to convincingly clear their lines on one too many occasions eventually led to the Quakes back line making the first concession, sparked by a delightful backheel flick from Argentine playmaker Mauro Rosales and finished off by some combination of Shaun Francis's foot and Christian Techera's shin while fighting for the same 50-50 ball. Luck was a Whitecap tonight, as their combined efforts chipped the ball delicately over David Bingham, spinning into the corner for the opener on the 39th minute.
The hosts came out much more positively in the second half, and began to gain the upper hand in the proceedings. In the 62nd minute, Cordell Cato was played in behind the defense and unleashed a good strike on goal, only for Ousted to lose his grip on the ball as he went to ground and Quakes captain Chris Wondolowski ghosted in and flicked it past the Dane for the equalizer. From there, Kinnear threw on some attack-minded subs such as Tommy Thompson and pushed for a goal by repeatedly lumping the ball into the box, but never looked particularly close to grabbing a winner. If anything, the visitors got closer in stoppage time on a breakaway when Kekuta Manneh had just Bingham to beat but took a heavy touch that allowed the Cal product to step up and beat him to it.
The international absences of Fatai Alashe and Marc Pelosi, combined with Matias Perez-Garcia's self-inflected suspension, conspired to produce a limp midfield effort that developed next to nothing through the middle, and did little to possess the ball for long periods of time. The defense, on the other hand, put in a creditable performance in no small part due to the fact that Clarence Goodson and Victor Bernardez started alongside each other for the first time in 5 matches. After the game, keeper David Bingham would refer to the pair as the "best center-back duo in the league," and true to form, any frailties at the back seemed to emanate from wider and deeper areas than those patrolled by the towering veterans.
Forwards Quincy Amarikwa and Chris Wondolowski fought hard for balls all game, and did well with their chances as they came, but lumping balls forwards and hoping for a favorable bounce was the order of the day. If there was a highlight, it would be the wide players; Shea Salinas was in an energetic and useful mood all night, and Cordell Cato provided a notable spark on a few more isolated occasions.
Here's what I took from the match:
This team's depth hasn't matched up to its capacity to miss players
On the one hand, the injury bill for the year is fairly spectacular. Steven Lenhart essentially retired for medical reasons before the season, yet remains a salaried roster player. Innocent only had two months of contribution (after missing out on a pre-season) before being lost for the year. Jordan Stewart did at least have a good run of games before he, too, went under the surgeon's knife and never returned. Add in persistent injuries to Matias Perez-Garcia, significant time missed by Clarence Goodson and Victor Bernardez, untimely international absences from Chris Wondolowski, Cordell Cato, and Fatai Alashe, and a dense smattering of yellow-and-red-card-related suspensions, and player availability has been something of a carousel for Kinnear. While Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi and Paulo Renato aren't more than backups, their long-term injuries, too, have negatively affected Kinnear's ability to reach deeper into his bench for defensive options.
On the other hand, all but the most fortunate of teams have to deal with all the same factors, and not in much lesser magnitude. There's always a tendency to think that one's own club has got worse luck with injuries than most, but of course by definition that's almost never true. I suspect the real issue for Quakes fans is not the volume of losses, but the lack of depth to make up for them.
Shaun Francis is an adequate reserve in MLS, but he's had to be a feature man this season. Salinas and Cato would be excellent rotation men on the wing, but they don't exactly stack up against the league's best starters. Despite running a two-striker system, the third best striker on the roster is Adam Jahn, who may not even be good enough to be an MLS player next year. The first center-back off the bench, at this point, is an 18-year-old with no professional appearances. Although there are three quality pivot midfielders (Pelosi, Alashe, and Godoy), the fact that all three have been relied upon to shore up depth issues elsewhere means that things are thinner than they appear through the middle. You get the picture.
Tonight, against Vancouver, Dom claimed he opted for Koval over more exotic options because it would preserve the continuity of the system he's been running for the last two months, one that has largely been successful. That's a defensible decision. I would even go so far as to agree that it's the right one. But the only thing more worrying than if that wasn't the best choice for unlocking the best performance of the team is if it was, since it would indicate a depressingly low ceiling for the team. It'll take another off-season for Kinnear, GM John Doyle, and Technical Director Chris Leitch to orchestrate that badly-needed upgrade in the middle part of the roster.
Dom Was Right: We wrote the Quakes off too early, but the Reaper may be sharpening his scythe
I'll be the first one to fess up to having serious doubts about San Jose's playoff prospects after a crushing loss to Houston on the road and a few "nail-in-the-coffin" road matches to follow. That week, Kinnear assured me that he still considered his team a playoff contender, and the record proved him right. Not only did most players' performances revert to the mean after an unsually low dip, but Anibal Godoy's addition has injected a huge amount of quality in the side and enabled it to play a style that fits its particular pieces better. It's ever a reminder that one can never assume the inevitability of teams near the top of the table staying at the top, or likewise at the bottom.
With the latest weekend of action, the situation got less murky, and the permutations fewer. Kansas City, Seattle, and Portland each have a game in hand on the Quakes, with Sporting perched 4 points above, the Sounders 2, and the Timbers dead even. Tied in wins and with a significant goal-difference advantage, San Jose's best shot is to count on Portland losing one more game than them down the stretch and equalling their results elsewhere. That's possible, since Portland has to go on the road to play a juggernaut LA Galaxy side, and a loss there would give the Quakes their own destiny back. Otherwise, however, they have manageable games against Western Conference bottom-dwellers Real Salt Lake and Colorado Rapids. Seattle and Kansas City would have to stumble more badly down the stretch to slip below the red line.
Given the unpredictbility and parity of soccer in general (and MLS in particular), any of those scenarios are posisble, so long as San Jose remains mathematically in it and relatively close to controlling its own destiny. I mention this only because of the disparity between the reaction in the stadium when the final whistle blew and the mindset in the locker room: fans were dead silent and left in funereal tones, but the coaches and players were relatively positive and level-headed afterwards.
Just like they were in early August.
It's hard to be adequately grateful for Chris Wondolowski.
109 MLS goals, good for 5th all time. 16 this season. 20 in October, a league record. 10 against Vancouver, which surely stands alone as well. The fact that we don't even really think to ask about how Chris keeps doing it is a testament to how insanely productive and reliable he is. "Well of course he scored again."
After the match, former US National Team player Herculez Gomez tweeted that it was a classic Wondo goal, and that he didn't mean it as an insult. It was a true poachers goal, from point blank range, with no defender or keeper remotely in position to stop it, built on the back of someone else's run and someone else's pass that was won by someone else's tackle. Some people denigate "poachers" for precisely this reason: they seem to get a disproportionate share of the glory compared to their overall involvement in the scoring play and the relative difficulty of the finish. And indeed, there are flukey goals that scorers have done less to earn than others.
109 times in, however, it can't possibly be an accident. This time, Wondolowksi had lined up his late-arriving run quite a while before Cordell Cato even unleashed the initial effort, knowing that an acute angle strike was more likely than normal to spill. He even timed it to give himself enough time to react to the direction of the spill, leaving him so far from the initial play that it's unlikely a defender would be able to track him through the whole path, especially given the more imminent danger presented by Cato and those to whom he could've crossed at the far post. Having worked himself into exactly the right position, he finished cooly, calmly, and with a bit more technical aptitude than it may have appeared at live speed. I couldn't agree more, Herculez: classic Wondo.
Not having such a gifted and productive goalscorer would have put an unimaginable dent in what little enjoyment Quakes fans have been able to wring out of a largely frustrating last three years. It would've made the 2012 fairy-tale run completely impossible. And it would've taken the greatest highlight of the post-2008 Earthquakes off the board. That means more to the franchise that just about anything besides its existence.