SANTA CLARA, CA - MAY 21: Ryan Johnson #19 of the San Jose Earthquakes and Zak Boggs #33 of the New England Revolution go for the ball at Buck Shaw Stadium on May 21, 2011 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
The New England Revolution are all set to take on the San Jose Earthquakes this Saturday at Gillette Stadium. It will be a battle to see who is more irrelevant in the current MLS conversation; both teams have been officially eliminated from playoff contention and are now playing for naught but pride and job security. That doesn't necessarily mean that it won't be an entertaining game - far from it. Players on both teams are fighting for their jobs, so you know they'll be giving a full effort.
Revolution tickets are of course available through our partnership with TiqIq.
San Jose features last season's top MLS goalscorer, Chris Wondolowski, who is again among the leaders this year. He's the primary attacking cog in the bay area machine, and neutralizing him is probably the most important thing for the Revs to focus on in this match. Weapons exist elsewhere in Bobby Convey, Ramiro Corrales, Khari Stephenson and Simon Dawkins, among others, so the banged-up Revolution defense can't sleep on anyone.
New England will have to do it without star rookie defender A.J. Soares, though, who went under the knife for a "debridement of the ankle" surgery, which will keep him out for the remainder of the season.
TBM: San Jose, much like the Revolution, are kinda on the outside looking in this year in terms of playoffs. This has to come as some surprise given the success of last season, when the Quakes came out of nowhere to storm into the conference finals, upsetting the heavily-favored New York Red Bulls. What happened this year to change things? What was missing?
RJ: Where to start...Well, first off was a series of injuries that disrupted the Earthquakes striker corps. While team leading scorer Chris Wondolowski escaped visiting the trainers room, others on the roster were not so lucky. Steven Lenhart, acquired in a draft-day deal from the Columbus Crew, suffered a knee injury prior to the season opener and missed the first month of the season. Ryan Johnson was thrust into a forward partnership with Wondolowski, but the pair never seemed to mesh together tactically. Just as Lenhart was coming back, forward/midfielder Simon Dawkins, on a year-long loan from Tottenham Hotspur, went out with a pair of calf injuries that required surgery. The team gelled with Lenhart up top and produced their best results of the season as the calendar turned to May - including a home victory over the Revolution.
But, as Lenhart began to feel more and more the weight of depression following the death of his father in the preseason, his effectiveness lessened, and eventually he and the team agreed to a personal leave of absence that would allow the striker to deal with his emotional needs. The Earthquakes traded Johnson to Toronto FC for a trio of players that included MLS veteran forward Alan Gordon. Similar in playing style to Lenhart, coaches hoped Gordon could step into the line-up and the Quakes wouldn't miss a beat. Unfortunately, the striker suffered from an undiagnosed abdominal injury, and season-ending surgery beckoned for the new arrival to San Jose.
Flummoxed by the whole series of events, which saw the team mired in a summer long 13 match winless streak, head coach Frank Yallop revamped the team's tactics to focus on a more possession styled offense, and set forth to make do with the players he had. Still with only one victory in their last 18 matches, the Earthquakes have gone from the highest scoring team in MLS in early June, to a playoffs has-been following their official elimination from qualification earlier this week.
A lack of scoring punch following the decline of Lenhart's effectiveness doomed the Earthquakes to a summer of discontent, and they now will play out the last three matches of the season with little to play for but pride.
TBM: Most opponents probably focus on Chris Wondolowski when trying to neutralize the San Jose offense, and with good reason; even if he isn't on pace to hit 18 again, Wondo is still among the league leaders in goals scored. That said, the Quakes offense has seen an unlikely contributor rise to the fore as a great foil for Wondo, and that's Khari Stephenson. Normally a midfielder, it appears he's flourished in the role of striker recently. How important has he been to the team and why do you think he was able to hit the ground running as a striker in this team?
RJ: Following Gordon's surgery, the Earthquakes tried to pair Dawkins up top with Wondolowski, but the Englishman never looked completely comfortable in that role. Coach Yallop eventually dropped Dawkins back into the midfield and promoted Khari Stephenson up top instead. A more physical player than Dawkins, Stephenson allowed the Earthquakes to nominally return to their preferred tactics of offensively playing off a target forward. Stephenson was game for the assignment, and has slowly emerged as a mildly effective striker.
Because the Earthquakes have abandoned to strictly "Route One" soccer strategy they employed when Lenhart and Gordon were available and moved more to a midfield possession game, Stephenson essentially was asked to play a very advanced attacking midfield role that had him and Wondolowski occupying similar patches of the pitch. His goals of late have not been of the classic striker's variety, but rather from that increased upfield positioning. He has repeatedly admitted he is more comfortable as a traditional central midfielder, but is enjoying the new role and the subsequent increase in focus on his shooting abilities. The Stephenson experiment at forward is only by necessity, and there is no reason to think that he will occupy that role in 2012 if he is brought back to the club in the offseason.
TBM: Give us an under-the-radar player Revs fans should watch out for in this match. (Your answer last time was Brad Ring)
RJ: A revelation for Earthquakes fans this summer was rookie midfielder Rafael Baca, who signed with the club in July after a months-long process that started in the preseason to gain eligibility to play in MLS. The Mexican-born graduate of Loyola Marymount University in Southern California did not participate in the multitude of MLS drafts back in January, and was invited to the Earthquakes preseason camp at the bequest of assistant coach Ian Russell. Baca showed good skill on the ball and speed off the ball in camp, which prompted the Earthquakes to undertake the lengthy procedure to secure a work permit. Expected to play a role with the team at the beginning of the season, Baca would not appear with the first team until July 9, when he entered as a substitute against the Philadelphia Union. Since his introduction, Baca has made 8 starts and has 12 appearances overall.
Used as a central midfielder or right winger, Baca has used his technical skills with good effect and has helped usher in a smooth transition to Quakes' new possession oriented style. Whether paired in the middle with veteran and MLS original Ramiro Corrales, or running the flanks with second-year defender Steven Beitashour, Baca has proven to be quite a find for the Earthquakes, and he looks to be in line to feature as a starter with the team beyond his rookie campaign.
RJ: The obvious choices would be in the central midfield, but given that both teams are out of the playoff hunt, the significance of the match turns more toward experimenting with player combinations and style adjustments. With that in mind, expect the Earthquakes to push possession more upfield against the Revolution and bring their defensive line up high near the center line. Given that formation set-up, the Earthquakes will most fear being exposed on the counterattack by the two Revs forwards Diego Fagundez and Milton Caraglio. With the former hoping to earn more playing time in future seasons and the later looking to prove his worth as a DP, the attacking duo will need to be kept in check at all times by a Quakes defense that uses two second-year players on the outside and can be countered on when they push too far upfield to join the Earthquakes attack.
TBM: Finally, let's have your projected starting XI and a scoreline prediction.
RJ: After the Red Bulls win on Tuesday night officially eliminated the Earthquakes from playoff contention, coach Yallop was quoted as saying that he was open to experimenting with the starting XI and getting some younger players more playing time. Look for a similar line-up to that which started against the SporKCs last Saturday, with one change perhaps up top with the introduction of on-loan striker Maxwell Griffin in the place of Stephenson. With a loan-to-buy agreement in place with his USL-Pro side Orlando City SC, the Earthquakes will want to see if bringing in the second-year professional out of UCLA is worth paying a transfer fee. Griffin has come in as a late game substitute the last few matches, but looks to be in line to get a start over the last three games of the season. With a current lack of depth on the roster available to coach Yallop due to injuries, other changes are unlikely for this weekend.
As for a prediction, given that both teams have little to play for other than pride, expect both sides to put a focus on trying to create quality scoring opportunities. With defense an after thought, and the proclivity of the Earthquakes to give as much as they take this season, I see the match ending in a 2-2 draw.