It’s officially win or die time for the San Jose Earthquakes.
Nine points out of the fifth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, and with World Cup stars Chris Wondolowski (USA) and Victor Bernardez returning to the starting lineup, the Quakes need to turn their sinking ship around Friday against visiting DC United.
If they can’t, they should be ready to kiss goodbye their already far-fetched playoff hopes.
Despite being in last place in the Western Conference, three consecutive 1-0 defeats show the Quakes have rarely been dominated this season. Instead, San Jose has suffered from being consistently mediocre, especially in the attacking third.
Mark Watson has pointed to consistent injuries all season and the recent absences of World Cup participants as reasons for the disappointing play.
The injury excuse is somewhat valid, especially considering that the team’s only creative attacker, Portuguese Yannick Djalo, has only managed seven appearances since joining the club at the end of the pre-season.
The recent injury to Shea Salinas, team leader in assists, has also hurt, as the winger is the only other member of the squad that has any sort of ability to take on and beat defenders in one-on-one situations.
But Yannick featured for a full 90 at Buck Shaw last week against Chivas USA and seemed to lack an alternative strategy besides kicking the ball ahead and trying to outrun his defender. This didn’t work for him last week, and the spark he had given this team since his arrival was absent.
There’s also the fact that the group with the most injury trouble — the defense — has been arguably the best unit all season. The Quakes have allowed only 16 goals in 2014, good for second-fewest in the Western Conference, and third-fewest in the MLS.
Even with Djalo healthy, this is a squad set up to beat teams 1-0. The defense is too good to get blown out on a regular basis, but as we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks, when the attacking element is not present, the Quakes don’t really have a chance against anybody.
If their fortunes were ever going to change it would be tomorrow, when San Jose returns both their best offensive and defensive players to the starting XI.
Striker Chris Wondolowski’s return is on everyone’s mind for two reasons.
Firstly, because of his overblown miss in the World Cup quarterfinal against Belgium, and secondly because he’s been the best goal scorer in the MLS for the last half decade and is rejoining a squad that has the lowest goal tally in 2014.
Bernardez’ return is just as important, as “Muma” is still arguably the best center-half in MLS, and can help with both his feet and head on set-pieces.
The Quakes’ size, one area where they stand above (pun intended) most other MLS teams, could be of large importance tomorrow, as visiting DC United prefer to attack with width, especially down the right, and put balls into the box.
This is where the Quakes defense is strongest, as San Jose typically has more trouble dealing with teams attacking up the middle with through balls.
DC, like San Jose, has scored five goals via set piece in 2014, so if San Jose has both Bernardez and the 6-foot-4 Clarence Goodson as their pair in the back (by all accounts they will), the Quakes may be able to stifle DC’s attack and get their first point since May 31.