CARSON, Calif. – The smash-and-grab offensive style that led the San Jose Earthquakes to the 2012 Supporters’ Shield has become a thing of the past and in its place is a defensive-minded mentality that the LA Galaxy will be tasked with breaking down on Sunday.
The Earthquakes have battled from playoff afterthought to the thick of the playoff race since the appointment of interim head coach Mark Watson for Frank Yallop in early June. Since Watson took charge, he has led the Earthquakes to a 10-5-2 record, which is the second best mark in the league in that time, accumulating 32 points after tallying just 15 points in the first three plus months of the season. In that time, San Jose has moved into sixth place in the Western Conference and a point away from the Colorado Rapids for the fifth and final playoff spot in the West.
Watson’s plan for success is a modification of Yallop’s style with San Jose remaining heavily a counterattacking side that is organized in the back—with the talented center back tandem of Clarence Goodson and Victor Bernárdez—while relying on the flanks to help generate offense.
“They have an established lineup, I think that [midfielder Shea] Salinas has really been an important player for them and he’s been a guy that has been in or out a little bit. They’ve added a couple pieces like [Jordan] Stewart at left back that has done well, but they still have a component that won’t change,” said Galaxy associate head coach Dave Sarachan. “They bring a physical element to the game, but they have the pieces that can still bring a possession-oriented approach as well. They have the belief that they can make this run into the playoffs as well.”
Watson’s “new” Quakes may have had success over the past few months, but when the Galaxy last hosted San Jose on Aug. 31, it was LA that controlled the match. From the outset, the Galaxy dominated possession and needed just 26 minutes to break the scoreless deadlock when Marcelo Sarvas fired a through-ball that allowed Robbie Keane to feed Landon Donovan for an easy finish. From there, the rout was on. The Earthquakes’ shell was broken as the Galaxy capitalized on a stretched-out San Jose side to win 3-0.
The Earthquakes have tightened up significantly since then by failing to allow more than one goal in their last six matches across all competitions, five of those being shutouts. With San Jose riding back-to-back 1-0 victories over the Colorado Rapids and Chivas USA, LA are expecting their Northern California rivals to once again arrive at StubHub Center with a defensive posture that must be broken down through constant pressure.
“Their last few games they’ve done a good job defensively and they’ve squeaked by some games,” said forward Landon Donovan. “We expect that the game on Sunday will look the same and they’ll try to do the same against us. Last time that they were here, we played a really good game and we have to do that again.”
The emphasis on defensive play may be a focal point of Watson’s resurgence, but the main cast of characters that helped San Jose to the an MLS-best 72 goals a year ago remain. Leading that group is Chris Wondolowski, who has scored 10 goals this season—seven of which are game-winners—as well as the physical forward tandem of Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon, who have each added four tallies.
As a result of the emergence of wide players like Salinas and Cornell Cato along with a more organized counter-attack, the Earthquakes are no longer as reliant on their forward trio as they were in 2012. A year ago, the combination of Gordon, Lenhart and Wondolowski combined for 50 of San Jose’s 72 total goals (68 percent), but this season, the three account for just 18 of 33 goals (55 percent).
Despite their drop in production, defender Omar Gonzalez understands that LA must be cognizant of all of the Earthquakes offensive weapons.
“They’re a lot more organized, but they’re still deadly when they’ve got Lenhart, Wondolowski and Gordon out there. They still pose the same threats because they have really good wide players and send in good balls,” he said. “Once [Watson took over as head coach], they really started winning and [now] they’re on a good streak, so they will come here with a lot of confidence.”
Tactics aside, it’d be expected for the Galaxy to be chomping at the bit to face their bitter rivals with a playoff berth on the line, as well as the chance to possibly end their rivals season. However, Gonzalez asserts that at this time of the year, no matter who is lining up against the Galaxy, every game is crucial.
“At this time of the year, whoever it is you have to get up,” claimed Gonzalez. “Maybe there is a little bit extra because it is San Jose and the games that we’ve had in the last couple of years have been so crazy, but I have to put all that other stuff aside and just focus on what I can do to get the win. It’s all about team first.”
Adam Serrano is the LA Galaxy Insider. Read his blog at LAGalaxy.com/Insider and contact him at LAGalaxyInsider@Gmail.com