Red-Hot Quakes Take California Clasico 1-0
Yet another early goal, yet another win against an MLS cup contender, and the dreadful Quakes of two weeks ago have completed their phoenix-like rise from the ashes by pitching a shutout against their in-state rivals, taking the game 1-0.
The opening whistle brought with it a swelling atmosphere for the most important game in San Jose in recent memory, magnified ever more by the star-power of Galaxy's Giovani dos Santos and Steven Gerrard. The hosts dealt with the loss of defensive midfielder Fatai Alashe by putting their own former Liverpool man, youngster Marc Pelosi, in a deep role in an attempt to contain LA's rampant offense, but the early minutes were predictably nervy nonetheless.
Twelve minutes in, Anibal Godoy chipped Quincy Amarikwa in behind the Galaxy back line which the forward fired in on goal for the first shot across the bow. The pressure didn't take long to bubble over, when in the 18th minute Marvell Wynne whipped in a left-footed cross from the right flank towards Amarikwa, who directed it right into the chest of Donovan Ricketts. The LA keeper couldn't hold onto it however, and an on-rushing Shea Salinas stuffed the rebound in the back of the net with his head, setting off disbelieving raptures in the crowd that their hot streak should continue.
Rather than revert to form as the underdogs, the Quakes kept the intensity up through the remainder of the half and out-possessed, out-tackled, and out-played their opponents. While there were some uncertain moments at the back, they looked the side more likely to score next, going close in the 37th minute from an excellently-worked break that ended in a cross that Chris Wondolowski nodded off the post.
Right off the break in the second half, the Quakes looked to kill off the game. While they didn't manage to score, Amarikwa's breakaway from a fortuitious Victor Bernardez clearance in the 47th minute was cut short from behind by last-man Leonardo, resulting in a red card for denial of a goal scoring opportunity.
While up a goal and a man certainly put the hosts in the driver's seat, if anything their performance for the remainder was more passive, and less effectual. However, their deep stance allowed them to repel most anything the Galaxy sent their way. Godoy and Pelosi, in particular, had the run of the rule over a center of the park that contained a former Liverpool captain. Pelosi elicited hoots and cheers in the 65th minute for a particularly ferocious tackle.
By the final 15 minutes, the hosts managed to suck all the oxygen out of the visitors' attack and counter effectively up the flanks, drying out any remaining time on the clock. Galaxy coach Bruce Arena made some aggressive substitutions and urged his men to lump the ball forwards, causing some trouble in the Quakes box, but the lead felt generally safe.
The crowd would have one last moment to cheer for in stoppage time, however, when Pelosi chipped a slick ball down the line to Wynne, who in turn popped it over his marker and squared it for substitute Adam Jahn. The Stanford product cut back across his marker to find some space and uncorked an on-target strike, but Ricketts was up to the challenge and pushed it away.
Seconds later, the final whistle blew, and the Quakes took home 3 points and their 10th shutout of the season. That leaves them in the playoff places, with 6 of their last 8 games at home.
New System Works Even Without Ideal Personnel
The Quakes' recent surge has coincided with a switch to a more traditional 4-4-2 look with two defensive midfielders, a move facilitated by the deadline-day acquisition of their star Panamanian. It's allowed the Quakes to play a much more possession-based game (they outpossessed the Galaxy 52-48 in this one) and for captain Wondolowski to play much higher up the pitch.
One worry I had was whether or not it would function without each of the Quakes' stud defensive midfielders, Godoy and Alashe, playing side-by-side. Marc Pelosi, who had previously played higher up the pitch in more attacking roles, conclusively answered the question that he could.
His performance is part of a broader trend on this Quakes team towards the second-choice player at a given position being more adequate replacements. Shaun Francis, for me, is the other standout example. Francis was a personal favorite whipping-boy for me earlier in the season when he stepped in for Jordan Stewart, but given a second shot at it, he's looked up for the part. While his touch and overall technical quality are barely adequate for the league, his athleticism and defensive positioning allowed him to hang in there against some of the best attackers the league has to offer.
All of this is proof that depth is necessary to run a "system," and that the Quakes still have a while to go until they really have it. That'll be a project for the offseason, but playing a game like this one where they were down Matias Perez-Garcia, Fatai Alashe, Jordan Stewart, and Innocent? That's a good start.
This Team Believes In Itself
And not just after this result. Three weeks ago, after the demoralizing Houston loss, each player and coach I spoke to insisted that they were a playoff team. Forgive me, but at the time I was skeptical.
Fast-forward through 4 games and 12 points that ran through three of the toughest teams in MLS, and now they aren't alone in their belief. If anything, they look likely to make the playoffs. Aside from the favorable schedule down the stretch, they will benefit from the imminent return of Fatai Alashe and Matias Perez-Garcia, not to mention Innocent farther down the line. Oh yeah, and there's no team in MLS hotter than them, nor any that has managed a comparable feat in 2015.
The mentality is obvious around the team. They played this match with a swagger that fed off the crowd's energy, and humbled Galaxy's name-brand midfield. They won more 50-50 balls, duels, and even completed more passes (rare for them this year). In the locker room after was whooping and hollering that I haven't heard much of in the last few months, and some celebratory post-game music.
This team isn't devoid of talent. Dominic Kinnear didn't suddenly forget how to field an effective MLS team. The gradual process of figuring out what worked for the squad, combined with a slight turn in luck and confidence, is what has exploded like a supernova in the last few weeks. I wouldn't have bet against Kinnear down the stretch even if they had lost tonight, but who in their right minds would now
Galaxy Can't Let Red Go
Sometimes coaches talk about refereeing decisions in order to take attention away from other things that were going on with the match. I hope that's what was going through Bruce Arena's mind when he went out of his way to lambast Jose Carlos Rivero for his red-card decision.
Almost certain to be fined for his remarks, the Galaxy coach went out of his way to claim that the referee had put on a clinic of how not to make a red-card call and that Omar Gonzalez was in a position that made Leonardo not the last man. Oddly enough, his players played significantly better with 10 than 11, but that would not sate Arena's fury. Robbie Keane, who had a quiet night, also went out of his way to rant about how the referee had made the game "about him" and not about the two teams.
Giovani dos Santos and Steven Gerrard refused to speak with media afterwards, presumably for similar reasons.
For my money, it's a clear foul, Gonzalez wasn't nearly close enough to cut off Amarikwa's clear shot at goal, and didn't demonstrably alter the game's dynamic for the worse for the Galaxy. Moreover, to focus on it is to ignore the Quakes' dominant first half.
Then again, I suppose that's probably the point.