Niksa: Predictable offense, star players missing time threaten to derail Earthquakes’ season

July 3, 2014, 5:22 p.m.

This past Saturday, I was unable to attend the annual MLS California Clasico for the first time in three years. When I opened my computer to check on the score of the game, I was disappointed, as the Los Angeles Galaxy beat the San Jose Earthquakes 1-0 in front of another sellout crowd at Stanford Stadium.

While I was a little surprised that it was such a low-scoring affair, I certainly was not shocked that it was another loss for the reeling Quakes. They have been in poor form this entire year, so I decided to investigate why the Earthquakes have struggled so far this year.

The Earthquakes have had an immensely difficult time this season putting the ball into the net, as they have only scored 15 times in 14 games, for an average of 1.07 goals per game. The Quakes have also been shut out six times this season, compared with being shut out 12 times all of last season.

Although the Earthquakes possess an anemic offense, their defense has been solid. They concede an average of 1.07 goals per game, and as such, have kept their goal differential (difference between goals allowed and goals conceded) at zero. For the sake of comparison, the Earthquakes had a goal differential of -7 last year, which shows that this year’s stingy Earthquakes defense has not been the source of the squad’s 4-6-4 record. Rather, the Earthquakes currently sit at the bottom of the Western Conference standings because of their offense, as a predictable style of play and a lack of game time with their two best forwards on the field has hurt the team’s record.

The Earthquakes play their best when their two best forwards, Chris Wondolowski and Steven Lenhart, are on the field together. Lenhart is a classic target forward, a bruiser and a ball-winner, while Wondolowski is a ruthless finisher. Last year, Lenhart and Wondolowski combined for 15 of the Earthquakes’ 35 goals, more than 40% of all of the goals scored.

However, with Lenhart battling injuries and Wondolowski being called up to Jurgen Klinsmann’s World Cup squad, the offense has suffered. Lenhart has recorded zero goals and one assist this year while Wondolowski has been unavailable for coach Mark Watson and his side.

While the Lenhart-Wondolowski pairing has previously been a big part of the team’s success, and their lack of time together has been a reason for the team’s mediocre record, there is a deeper problem that has also affected the San Jose Earthquakes, namely their increasingly predictable style of play.

Last year, the Earthquakes came under heavy criticism for playing “unattractive, route one soccer.” “Route one” soccer is a game plan that employs two target forwards and a standard 4-4-2 formation. The game plan is simple: lob long through balls to your target forwards and hope that they can outmuscle defenders and score on breakaways.

In 2012, the team scored a franchise record 72 goals in 2012, averaging two goals per game. In 2013, the Earthquakes struggled to replicate that 2012 form, only scoring 35 goals, good for 16th in goals scored out of 19 total MLS squads. In 2014, the Earthquakes are on pace to score 38 goals, which represents only a slight improvement from last year.

Therefore, why has the route one game plan not reaped the same benefits over the last two seasons as in 2012? There are two reasons: the aforementioned Lenhart-Wondolowski pairing and their lack of playing time together, and the evolution of other MLS teams’ defenses. Teams like Sporting Kansas City, Vancouver Whitecaps and the New England Revolution have added burly center backs that can win the aerial battle with Lenhart and the rest of the team’s power forwards.

Teams have also changed their formations, switching from a 4-4-2 to a 4-2-3-1. The Portland Timbers, who use the 4-2-3-1, now use their two defensive midfielders to swarm the Earthquakes’ forwards, forcing them to concede possession. The fact that the Earthquakes have only scored 15 goals in 2014 makes it more and more apparent that teams have figured out the Earthquakes’ simple offense. The Earthquakes’ exposed game plan is the huge problem with this team and a main reason that they have had a very disappointing start to their campaign.

The Earthquakes, unlike other small budget clubs, have some real talent on their roster. They possess two good wing backs in Brandon Barklage and Jordan Stewart, an effective center midfielder in Pierrazi, an assist machine in Shea Salinas and a very creative forward/attacking midfielder in Yannick Djalo. The Earthquakes need to play through their best players while creating chances through possession. For example, the Quakes can first spread it out wide to Salinas and Stewart, and then have Lenhart, Wondolowski and even forward Alan Gordon get on the end of crosses from Salinas and Stewart.

If the Earthquakes’ coaching staff decides that this game plan is too predictable, they can give the green light to central midfielders Sam Cronin, Khari Stephenson, and Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi to take shots from outside the box. All three can hit absolute bombs from outside the eighteen-yard box, and if the goalie does spill the initial shot, then goal-poacher Wondolowski can be on hand to tap in the rebound.

While I am certainly not a coach for the Earthquakes, I could not help but cringe at the sight of every offensive foray for the Quakes end in a shot well wide of the goal during the Classico. In fact, the Earthquakes were only able to put one shot on target, a Steven Lenhart header in the 87th minute! For a team with all of this quality on offense, the showing at the Classico frankly is unacceptable.

If the Earthquakes can implement a more creative, wing-oriented style of attack, take more outside shots to test keepers, have Lenhart and Wondolowski on the field on the same time and hopefully avoid the injury bug, I believe the Earthquakes have a great chance to make the playoffs. However, if the Earthquakes remain a predictable side on offense, then the Quakes will be doomed to another finish at the bottom of the Western Conference table.

Contact Matt Niska at mattniksa80 ‘at’

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