Match previews

Preview: Philadelphia Union vs San Jose Earthquakes

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Who: Philadelphia Union vs San Jose Earthquakes
What: Regular season game
Where: PPL Park
When: 8 pm, Sunday, Aug. 24
Watch: CSN, Univision Deportes, MLS Live, MLS Direct Kick, DirecTV
Whistle: Ted Unkel; Linesmen: Brian Dunn, Richard Gamache; Fourth Official: Robert Sibiga

Let’s say you are a mid-table Eastern Conference MLS side. You are desperate for home points. And someone says, “Hey, did you see our schedule? We play a Western Conference opponent.”

At that moment, you hope the next words out of their mouth are either, “It’s Chivas” or “It’s San Jose minus their two biggest signings.”

The Philadelphia Union’s hit the lottery, and will welcome the struggling, injury-plagued Earthquakes to PPL Park on Sunday.

But, of course, this is MLS. Even Chivas USA can go on a run, and even San Jose can turn up for the occasional road game.

Notably, the Quakes gave up few shots in good areas before the Sounders' final push in stoppage time.

Notably, the Quakes gave up few shots in good areas before the Sounders’ final push in stoppage time.

Who is San Jose right now: Young and inexperienced

Yannick Djalo and Matias Perez Garcia are both injured, meaning the bulk of the experience and skill San Jose planned to build around this season won’t be on the field Sunday. But as Seattle found out Wednesday, the young Earthquakes won’t just lie down.

San Jose has been very high on 19-year old Tommy Thompson for a long time. The club’s first homegrown signing, Thompson blew out a knee in preseason and only started his first match of the season Wednesday. He looks and plays like a hyperactive Jimmy McLaughlin, and his ability to find and use space is noticeably advanced for his age.

Stanford product JJ Koval also saw his first start since May 3 midweek. Koval has yet to prove an effective player in MLS. He plays positive and smart passes given time, but finding that time has been an issue. Particularly on San Jose, where it seems like every central midfielder is a slightly defensive central midfielder, Koval does not fill any needs. If he plays against the Union, the rookie will most likely be tasked with tracking either Amobi Okugo or Maurice Edu coming late through the middle.

How do they want to play: Classic road tactics

Only two teams in MLS have worse road records than the Quakes. But a seven point return from nine road matches disguises sneaky-good play and an effective system. Giving up only 11 goals away from home points to San Jose’s ability to organize defensively and prevent shots from good areas.

Against Seattle, for example, Cronin and Koval closed up the center of the pitch quickly. The back line, instead of being on the back foot, was able to step to shooters and block an absurd 12 shots.

Chris Wondolowski is darn good at what he does.

Chris Wondolowski is darn good at what he does.

Off blocked shots and other turnovers, San Jose breaks through the distribution of Chris Wondolowski, whose passing chart consistently looks like a page out of a textbook for hold up strikers. Wondo brings in a host of inconsistent but just-dangerous-enough-to-scare-you wide players. Shea Salinas is the most familiar to Union stalwarts, but Jordan Stewart and, to a lesser extent, Ty Harden and Brandon Barklage, can also get forward.

It is fairly clear to the outsider — and probably to head coach Mark Watson — that the above names are not the supporting cast that will lead a playoff run. But as the Quakes rebuild, some of those players will have to emerge as consistent role players. They know it, and they will all be making a case for those future minutes against Philly on Sunday.

Koval and Cronin support the flanks, but do a fine job closing down the dangerous areas of the pitch.

Koval and Cronin support the flanks, but do a fine job closing down the dangerous areas of the pitch.

How should the Union defend: Aggressively

Clarence Goodson, the Quakes most cultured defender, is out for another six weeks. Sam Cronin skipped the extended peak years and started an “aging Brian Caroll” impression in his mid-20s. Koval is adjusting to the speed of MLS, Salinas needs tons of space to be effective, Khari Stephenson is useful about as often as a banana slicer, and Cordell Cato has late-game substitute practically written into his contract.

So the Quakes are not a team that will own possession or score from build-up play. Instead, they use a lethal finisher (World Cup aside, of course) and an organized defense to stay in matches and steal points. In short, this match is practically begging the Union to come out of their preferred defensive shell.

That shell did not serve Jim Curtin’s team well in Houston, where a Dynamo team that looked far from coordinated was allowed to dictate play to Philly’s double-pivot midfield. Against teams looking to exploit the Union’s struggling defense, the double-pivot was revelatory, providing the cover and the outlet passes around which a transition offense could be built. But there has been a fair bit of luck along the way (merci for those points, Montreal), and without Cristian Maidana, Philly has been almost completely reliant on the vertical game.

One glaringly obvious problem for the Union is that Vincent Nogueira’s brilliance for getting out of tight spaces belies his extreme aversion to them. The Frenchman spends his time slipping wide in order to avoid the bustling crowd in the middle of the park. If the team wants him to continue to play centrally, they have to adjust for his tendencies. This means one of the other central midfielders must be stepping forward into the space he abandons to pick up loose balls and offer an outlet for Casey or Ribeiro.

In essence, the Union need to flip the midfield triangle, with two players in front of one deeper-lying midfielder.

How should the Union attack: On the dribble or with patience

What Seattle discovered on Wednesday was that San Jose does not have very good solo defenders. Get Jordan Stewart on his back foot and he might as well put on a reflective vest and go put traffic cones out of work. The Quakes know this, however, and that is why their roster is peppered with energetic defensive midfielders who are always ready to slip in and offer cover.

Andrew Wenger’s recently discovered ability to run at a defense can be particularly effective against a San Jose team that will sit deep enough to prevent all-out counterattacks.

As discussed above, the key to the attack is getting the midfield forward. Whether it is Cristian Maidana returning to a central role, Okugo or Edu playing higher, or Nogueira staying central, there simply must be a threatening presence at the top of the box to keep Cronin and Koval honest. Otherwise they will double up on the wings and expose the Union’s poor possession-based offense.

Who to watch: Wondolowski, Thompson, Salinas
Expected lineup

Expected lineup

There is a myth that Chris Wondolowski can only score if he gets service. This is not true. Like Sebastien Le Toux, Wondo is excellent at exploiting defensive errors, and this skill makes him particularly dangerous against a Union side prone to once-a-game-face-palm syndrome.

But while Wondolowski is a known quantity, Thompson is the real potential game changer. Unlike Stephen Lenhart and Alan Gordon, Wondolowski’s previous partners in crime, Thompson is exceedingly small (5’7”) and creative. He will check back into space, pull midfielders wide, force central defenders to make tough decisions, and generally try to get on the ball whenever possible.

Former Union winger Shea Salinas has become a West Coast Danny Cruz. When he’s off, he is energetic but massively frustrating both in his defensive discipline and his offensive wastefulness. When he is on, however, he seems to get under opponents’ skin the moment he steps onto the pitch, and continuously creates chances out of hustle and sweat. Salinas connects well with Wondolowski, and it will be important for the Union to keep him from becoming an influence on the left.

Prediction: Union 1-0 Quakes

A bit of rest and San Jose’s injuries open the door for Philly to squeak by at PPL Park. Get ready for another Montreal-style contest, where the Union seem like the better team but spend a lot of the game on the back foot for no apparent reason.

Also look for Pedro Ribeiro to get more minutes off the bench. His size and skill are difficult to defend, and the Union need a new dimension if they want the Houston loss to be a small pothole on their road to the playoffs.

 

10 Comments

  1. OneManWolfpack says:

    3 points. 10-0 or 1-0. I don’t care. San Jose isn’t very good. Although 10-0 would be pretty fun…

  2. Is giving Nogueira the night off an expectation, or recommendation to give the man a much needed break?

    • I’d say it’s a recommendation. Friday seemed like the perfect time to rest him… but there he was. So I won’t be caught expecting him out of the first XI until I actually see it happen.

  3. This is game is winnable even with our “B” squad in. Lets try that because after this it is all 6 point swings.

  4. I think both Le Toux and Nogs could use a game off. Any chance they both sit and either Wenger or Robeiro are used instead?

    • If Le Toux isn’t in the lineup after an 8 day layoff you can color me very surprised. Not that I necessarily disagree with you, but I’d say chances are low.

      • I would be shocked as well. I’m just thinking with the knock he took and all the running he’s done, with San Jose not being the best quality, this could be a good chance to refresh for the stretch run. That said, you’re right, he’ll be playing

  5. I would only start Wenger if we want to see some exciting runs culminating in off-target shots. Although he’s also good for some awkward-looking aimless jogging around the pitch.

  6. Considering 2 games in hand (yielding draws) playing in the weaker conference, our record is comparable. SJ is down starters but this game is no automatic. To dominate a team would be a welcome change.

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