It's time to break down this week's opponents, the San Jose Earthquakes. What do we really know about them? Well, here to help us prepare is Robert Jonas, managing editor of Center Line Soccer, our fellow SB Nation blog. Let's jump right in.
Who are three San Jose players that Orlando City fans should watch?
The Earthquakes don't try to outrun their opponents. They don't try to out-possess them either. Instead, it is organization that is the Quakes' hallmark, and it comes from playing with a solid spine. Exemplifying that is the play of forward Chris Wondolowski, central midfielder Fatai Alashe, and goalkeeper David Bingham.
Wondolowski, as everyone has no doubt heard at this point, is one goal away from the century mark in his MLS career. He is not the focal point of the Quakes offense -- that role is left to Matias Perez Garcia -- but Wondo is always looking to get on the receiving end of service in the area. He finishes chances rather than creating them, and he is the talisman of the team.
Alashe is a rookie out of Michigan State that was not heralded as much as the forwards that were drafted around him, including Cyle Larin, but he was tasked very early on by head coach Dominic Kinnear to be his defensive midfielder. Alashe missed the entire MLS combine with an injury, one that also kept him out for most of the preseason, but Kinnear predicted that he had a player on his hands in the mold of his former Dynamo charge Ricardo Clark.
A third of the way into the season, and that prescient view has held true, as Alashe has gone toe to toe with some of the best attacking midfielders in the league and exceeded expectations. On Sunday, it will be Kaká that Alashe will be tasked with shadowing, a responsibility that he said earlier this week that he is looking forward to. The 21-year-old was a surprise call-up to the U-23 U.S. Men's National Team earlier this year, and he is now a favorite to make the USA Olympic team for the Rio games next summer.
Bingham was a lottery pick back in 2011 after a stellar career at California, but he had to sit behind veteran goalkeeper Jon Busch for the first four years of his career. Enter Kinnear as head coach, and Bingham was immediately thrust into a starting role to start this season. Kinnear has a propensity to choose tall, lanky 'keepers, and Bingham -- like his former player Tally Hall in Houston, now of Orlando City -- is no exception. Whereas Busch preferred to play a more cautious role in the penalty area, Bingham is not afraid to get in the mix. As a result, he has made some spectacular saves this season, but he has also made some critical blunders.
What is the team's preferred style of play and formation?
The Quakes play with a fluid formation that is focused on a 4-3-3, but that often appears to be running in a 4-1-4-1. The key is the anchored center backs of Clarence Goodson and Victor Bernardez -- both World Cup veterans -- shielded by Alashe. The trio keeps behind the ball most of the time so that the fullbacks and wingers can look for room along the touchline. Marvell Wynne and Sanna Nyassi on the right -- both players that were selected in the Re-Entry process over the off-season -- and Jordan Stewart and Shea Salinas on the left provide San Jose with two-way tandems that are quick to shift from offense to defense, and vice versa, as play demands. Stationed centrally is Perez Garcia, the Argentine designated player, whose responsibility is to connect the two halves of the formation with possession and passing. Wondolowski often drops back to help MPG, but he will also provide a link to target forward Adam Jahn. To a man, the team plays solid defense and doesn't get stretched too much into the attacking third.
What are the major strengths and weaknesses of the team at this point?
When it comes to the most obvious strength, as FOX Sports 1 announcer Alexi Lalas -- who will be in the booth at Levi's Stadium this Sunday -- is fond of saying: set pieces. The Earthquakes like to use the size of their center backs on corner kicks and free kicks into the area, dead ball situations created in most part by the ability of Perez Garcia to command attention while in possession in the opponent's half of the field. The Argentine has suffered the most fouls of anyone on the Quakes, and he is then able to play provider on the ensuing free kicks. And his targets are varied, as no one on the squad not named Wondolowski has scored more than one goal so far this season.
The Earthquakes biggest concern in 2015 has been their inability to close out games when they are tied or have the lead. Until last week's game, the Quakes had not had a two-goal lead at any point in the season -- and that came when Crew SC was playing with only 10 men for two thirds of the match. San Jose has a thin margin for error when it comes to goals scored and goals allowed -- the team sports a +1 goal differential after 11 games -- yet they sit in fourth place in a stacked Western Conference. Kinnear has said repeatedly that the turning point of the season will come when the Quakes learn to close out games. When that happens, San Jose is expected to be a major player in the west.
What are the fans' expectations for the club, both realistic and unrealistic?
The Earthquakes finished 2014 with the worst record in the Western Conference -- even lower down the table than now-defunct Chivas USA -- so most fans went into this year simply looking for any level of improvement. What they are getting is a team that, under Kinnear, looks disciplined and motivated to make a difference. The club opened Avaya Stadium this season to much fanfare in the Bay Area, and the squad has looked determined to make it a difficult venue for visiting teams. The improved play of Perez Garcia and the surprise introduction of Alashe have helped grow confidence in fans that these Quakes can compete with the best MLS has to offer.
Now, no one is ever going to accuse San Jose fans of having pie-in-the-sky expectations -- that is not something that is in the DNA of the fanbase -- but with each successful week of play, especially following a three-game unbeaten streak on a recent road trip, whispers confirm that observers see the return of Kinnear marked already as a wholesale success. Supporters will always flock to Avaya Stadium -- win or lose -- but casual fans are starting to look a little more carefully at how the playoff system is structured, already eyeing November on their calendars for potential post-season game dates.
What do you expect the starting XI to look like on Sunday?
David Bingham; Marvell Wynne, Victor Bernardez, Clarence Goodson, Jordan Stewart; Fatai Alashe; Sanna Nyassi, Chris Wondolowski, Matias Perez Garcia, Shea Salinas; Adam Jahn
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Big thanks to Robert for helping us get to know more about our new enemies.