Who: New England Revolution vs. San Jose Earthquakes
Where: Buck Shaw Stadium, Santa Clara, CA
When: Saturday, May 20th, 10:30 PM EST (7:30 PM PST)
The New England Revolution will look to ruin everybody's Saturday night plans (at least on the East coast) when they take on the San Jose Earthquakes at the ungodly and irritating hour of 10:30 PM. New England are coming off back-to-back home shutouts while San Jose seems to be rounding into form after nabbing four points from six in their last two matches.
It's going to be very important for New England to put in a good, smart shift on the road. The Earthquakes don't have the most varied attack in the league but they do feature last year's Golden Boot winner, Chris Wondolowski. Wondo has five goals already this season, including two in his last two matches, and he has a potent mix of size and poaching instinct that makes him a real handful for any defense. A.J. Soares and Ryan Cochrane, should they be the preferred pairing, will have their work cut out for them.
Today's Q&A is with Robert Jonas of Quake, Rattle and Goal, SB Nation's Earthquakes blog.
TBM: The Quakes are coming off a nice, normal seven-day layoff after having to deal with a midweek match in Vancouver followed by a home tilt on the weekend. The former ended in a creditable 1-1 draw, while the latter featured a shellacking of epic proportions of the Columbus Crew, pulling out a 3-0 result in what looked like a totally dominant second-half performance. How important is it to maintain this momentum against the Revolution at Buck Shaw this weekend? Also, how important is it that Chris Wondolowski appears to be finding his scoring touch again?
RJ: With the Earthquakes still mired near the bottom of the Western Conference standings, the answer to both those questions is very important. Earlier this week at training, select players revealed that the team had really been pressing to get that first home victory, and in four previous attempts they came up short. That self-imposed pressure did not make for beautiful soccer, as too often the team played tight and tentative - almost as if they feared making a mistake - and were punished by opponents who stayed on an even keel. Some players appeared guilty of playing not to win, but to keep their positions in the starting line-up. When head coach Frank Yallop through convention out the window and made every player a candidate to start, the motivation and hunger resurfaced for some who had skated through the first month of the season. In fact, 21 of the 24 healthy and available Earthquakes have already made starts this season.
Having posted their first home win last weekend, the talk around training all week has been to back that up with another win this Saturday against the Revolution, and Chris Wondolowski is as the front of that charge. With three goals in his last four games, Wondo is benefitting greatly from the emergence of Steven Lenhart as his striking partner at the top of Yallop's preferred 4-4-2 formation. Because opposing defenders have to mark the physical Lenhart so closely, Wondolowski can find the slightest openings that result around goal and make his runs to those spots. Before Lenhart entered the fray for the Earthquakes, Wondo was more on an island in the attacking third. He was getting off a lot of shots - top in MLS going into this weekend - but they were contested by defenders or taken from difficult positions. More a finisher than a creator of shots, the MLS 2010 Golden Boot winner is looking more relaxed than ever this season, and with the opportunities coming his way, he is bound to continue his hot streak of scoring.
TBM: San Jose lost Brandon McDonald to a red-card suspension after what looked to be a silly foul at the end of last week's match against Columbus. Considering how well the team played - especially in keeping the shutout - with him in the lineup, how big of a loss will that be in New England? Who will fill that hole, and do you have the same confidence?
RJ: Brandon McDonald appealed the awarding of the red card to MLS earlier this week, but was denied and will sit out the prescribed one-game penalty. So that leaves Yallop with a difficult decision as to whom to pair with incumbent center back Jason Hernandez. In the last four matches, the Earthquakes have used a four-man rotation of central defenders - Ike Opara and Bobby Burling being the other two - with the collective defense only allowing two goals in that span - a penalty kick goal to Philadelphia and a crossing pass goal to Vancouver. To all observers, the individual player choices don't seem to matter at that central position at this juncture of the season.
As to who replaces McDonald this weekend, the answer could follow one of two distinct paths. Hernandez has not been paired with Opara in central defense since early last season, as he prefers McDonald as his partner. However, Hernandez does have a good playing chemistry with Burling as evidenced from watching training and in their away match at Philadelphia. Opara, who more and more appears to be the odd man out in central defense when it comes to partnerships, has started twice this season alongside Burling and can claim a streak of 210 minutes of shutout defense before allowing Vancouver's stoppage time goal two weeks ago. With Hernandez unlikely to take the bench, Burling would appear to have the inside track on replacing McDonald, while Opara may be rested ahead of next Tuesday's U.S. Open Cup qualifier against the Chicago Fire.
TBM: Give us an under-the-radar player Revolution fans should watch out for in this match.
RJ: Simply put, the player that has helped reverse the Earthquakes fortunes over the last couple weeks has been midfielder Brad Ring. The second-year player from Indiana University was drafted in 2009, but had to sit out the entire season while recovering from a hip injury. He returned to train with the team in late 2009 and made the roster last season. With the recent surgery to Simon Dawkins taking the talented young Englishman out of the line-up, Ring has stepped forward to start the last four matches for the Quakes. And has been well documented, San Jose arguably has played their best stretch of games over that period.
What makes Ring so effective for the Quakes is his high-energy play and dogged determination to contest every possession in the midfield. He has pushed more forward in that role when paired with Sam Cronin, and he has dropped more into a defensive stance when paired with Khari Stephenson. Against the Crew, Ring executed a beautiful turn on a defender near midfield before delivering a cross-field pass to Ryan Johnson that was turned into Wondolowski's goal. Earlier in that same half, it was Ring who punished the Crew midfielder that ventured near the Quakes penalty area and kept the game in the home sides favor until the goals could come. Yallop describes him as more of a scrapper than anything, and that style of play is what is helping the Earthquakes escape their early season funk.
TBM: Who do you think the Earthquakes will fear most in the New England lineup this weekend?
RJ: The two players that were mentioned repeatedly by coach Yallop and the players this week during training were Shalrie Joseph and Benny Feilhaber. Slowing down the Revolution midfield pairing will be key to the Quakes strategy this weekend, which fits in nicely with the way they have played in the past couple of weeks. MLS, in its latest form, is a league dominated by wing play, and the Earthquakes are very willing to concede that space when not in possession. Key to those tactics is clogging the center of the pitch to take away the easy transfer of the ball from side to side and forcing long passes and crosses that the central defenders can readily handle. If Joseph and Feilhaber are allowed too much space in the center of the pitch, it creates a problem for the defenders that will result in a vulnerability to shots at the top of the area.
TBM: Finally, let's have your projected starting XI and a score prediction.
RJ: Turmoil in player selection over the last two weeks is settling out in San Jose and coach Yallop is beginning to favor a certain combination of players. However, with an important U.S. Open Cup match coming up next Tuesday and an away match to Chicago next weekend, Yallop has mentioned he is planning his starting line-ups for the busy week ahead in mind. Expect the Earthquakes to leave most of the changes for Tuesday and post a line-up on Saturday that closely resembles the starting XI that took care of business against the Crew.
Steven Lenhart - Chris Wondolowski
Ryan Johnson - Khari Stephenson - Brad Ring - Joey Gjertsen