Quakes Knock Off MLS-Leading DC United on the Road, 2-0
If anyone was doubting whether the Quakes could replicate their midweek performance, it only took four minutes to restore their faith.
Chris Wondolowski's early gut-punch goal, combined with a Shea Salinas strike and a bit of luck on the defensive end led to the Western Conference minnows taking a shock 2-0 win over Supporter's Shield-leading DC United and a vital three points in their improbable run back towards the playoff places.
The opening goal came from some indecisive defending by the hosts, as the ball ping-ponged about the box before Shaun Francis eventually won a 50-50 ball that squirted out perfectly to the feet of the Quakes captain. He dummied it, spun, and hit it as it slid past him, tucking a seeing-eye strike through a sea of limbs and into the back of the net.
The remainder of the half didn't look half as good for the visitors, as they predominantly sat deep in a bunker as wave after wave of attack washed over them, conceding a spectacular 8 corners. While the visitors broke out a few times on the counter, their possession was largely interrupted and ineffective.
The second half started on a brighter note, with Wondolowski taking a crack at goal right off the whistle, but it was his strike partner, Quincy Amarikwa, who would get things going in the 52nd minute. Amarikwa was played through on the break, and when a tackle impeded his progress, he played Salinas in from a wide left area. The winger took a hesitation step to ditch his man and passed the ball through the danger area and into the far side netting giving the Quakes a 2-0 lead they would keep.
Holding that lead was far from a certain proposition, however, as DC United's midseason aquisition Alvaro Saborio went incredibly close to scoring on no fewer than three occasions, unlucky to direct it directly at a grateful David Bingham. The final whistle blew without a concession despite the constant pressure, sending the Quakes home with all three points.
After the last three results, it might be easy to forget that just nine days ago many supporters were calling for protests outside the stadium and a fired general manager. I myself more or less declared the Quakes playoff hopes a desperate longshot, and fellow beat reporters I spoke to felt much the same.
What we must evaluate, then, is whether the Quakes recent surge is a genuine reflection of changed underlying dynamics due to a new acquisition and a new system, or if that surge is perhaps a bit overstated and we'll likely return to earth a bit.
While the Kansas City game was a genuine rout in which the Quakes thoroughly out-played their opponent, the DC United game was a much more even affair where luck on a different day may well have led to a 2-0 result going the other direction. Both goals were seeing-eye finesse finishes that snuck past a backup keeper, and chance-generation was modest. On the other end of the pitch was an unusually poor performance, with the defensive midfielders and fullbacks not doing a particularly good job of applying pressure outside of the 18-yard box, forcing center-backs Clarence Goodson and Victor Bernardez to deal with a spectacular volume of aerial work.
The Colorado game, too, was a limp performance against the worst team in the Western Conference, relying on a set-piece goal and decent but not completely convincing defending. The Rapids had a few excellent chances for an equalizer that went untaken. Godoy was a monster defensively, but the team's overall passing was uninspired.
Lastly, I'd argue the good results still exist on a razor's edge of maintaining the right health at the right positions. The loss of Jordan Stewart has yet to haunt Quakes fans, not in the least because of Goodson and Godoy's efforts, but I would be surprised if his absence isn't felt sooner rather than later. Matias Perez-Garcia may be a hipster pick to get dropped from the starting lineup when he comes back in a few weeks, but he'll be missed horribly the second that Fatai Alashe, who came out of the DC game with a pulled hamstring, misses any time. Lose any one of Godoy, Wondolowski, Amarikwa, or Goodson, and a playoff berth becomes a wild fantasy.
For me, then, I'm worried about what'll happen next. I think regression is much more likely than a permanent surge. The real insurance against drop-offs is depth, but it'll be at least one more offseason before San Jose will have that.
Collapse of Midfield Solidity
Anibal Godoy was brought in to solidify the midfield, and that he did in his first two matches with the club. Especially once Fatai Alashe returned to the lineup next to him, it appeared the Quakes had two athletic enforcers who were more than adequate at holding and progressing possession. For fans tired of watching a frail midfield get picked apart all season, it was a delightful sight.
One of the direct impacts of this increased solidity is Chris Wondolowski feeling more freedom to stay positioned on opposing center-backs shoulders, rather than dropping deep to receive the ball. Against Houston and Colorado, with Marc Pelosi instead of Fatai partnering with Godoy, you could see the role emerging into effectiveness. Against Kansas City, with the Michigan State product manning the middle, Wondolowski-as-a-forward erupted like a supernova.
DC United, however, showed how simplistic the "Wondo needs to play as a forward" analysis is. In the first half, the Quakes were pinned back deep in their half and barely survived unscathed. The counterattacks looked decent, but what went unnoticed by the commentators was the fact that the Quakes talisman was playing the role of a true forward, looking to turn and get upfield on the break and staying positioned high. That, combined with Fatai Alashe's apparent injury and other lackluster passing performances, led to a major gap between front and back that tends to happen to "empty bucket" teams, turning the ball over for DC to exert yet more pressure.
After a half hour of that madness in the first period, Kinnear clearly had a talk with his Captain and the second period started out with Wondolowski more willing to keep his back to goal and connect in possession than before. The result was more ability to retain possession, less pressure on the back line, and a decent counter-attack goal anyway. When Fatai had to come off with the hamstring knock in favor of Pelosi, the midfield wilted once again as may have been expected, but even that was an improvement on the first half.
What I'm saying, then, is that while the adjustments and acquisitions Kinnear has made to allow Wondolowski to position himself higher in the pitch have created massive strides in attack, over-correcting for his previous positioning is just as dangerous because you get the first half against DCU and the threadbare parts of the Houston game. As far as I can tell, Kinnear has noticed this problem and it's a constant process of refinement, dependent on a bunch of moving parts.
Inarguable Mental Strength
Maybe "goonie magic" is native to San Jose. Maybe it's contagious. All I know is that this team just surived a seven-game winless streak in the lead up to the playoff push, didn't fall apart, then took down two of MLS's top teams, on the road, three days apart.
Kinnear continued to crack jokes with media, stay relatively upbeat in practice, and claim that everyone in the organization was focused on making the playoffs. His overall demeanor, and that of his players, was nobly even-keeled through the good times and the bad.
If this team continues to get results, and if their Western Conference rivals falter, there will be some high-pressure, high-stakes games down the stretch. Especially if they slip up during part of the stretch run, they'll need the mental fortitude to hop right back onto the horse and collect points, no matter how demoralizing an individual result may be.
I think this team has it in them. For me, the only real question is will their health and depth hold up over the next two months?