Anthony Gruppuso-US PRESSWIRE
Neither the San Jose Earthquakes nor the New York Red Bulls opened their regular season quite the way they had hoped. Why so? Well, New York coughed up a two goal lead at Portland and the Quakes let Real Salt Lake steal three points from Buck Shaw Stadium. Something has to give this Sunday, right?
File under "getting to know you, getting to know all about you." Quake, Rattle, and GOAL! reaches across the nation -- the SB Nation -- to get the low-down on the visiting New York Red Bulls from Once A Metro. The vaunted Red Bulls attack will be missing Brazilian set-piece specialist Juninho -- and on Brazilian Heritage night at The Buck, no less -- but still benefit from superstar Thierry Henry and striking partner Fabian Espindola on offense. New York leaked in three goals in their season opening draw with Portland and San Jose gave up two late strikes to RSL in theirs. Something has to give, right?
To preview Sunday's ESPN televised match between the Red Bulls and Earthquakes, let's play a little game that here at QRG we like to call "3 Up and 3 Down."
Quake, Rattle and Goal: A back-to-back cross-country trip for the Red Bulls has to be taxing on the players. Why on earth would they not stay on the west coast between games in Portland and San Jose, and what, if any, effect from the travel do you think we'll see on the players this Sunday?
Once a Metro: A great question - I know the team considered staying out west and Mike Petke has said if the game were Friday or Saturday they absolutely would have. However, after a long time away from home during preseason in Florida and Arizona, they figured the team would be better off training back in New Jersey and spending down time locally with family and friends. I can see that.
You can easily argue the flip side though that a few extra days in Northern California, especially as winter storms are hitting the East Coast this week, would have made a lot of sense, and that a team under a brand new coaching staff with as many new players (nine) as returning ones on their opening game day roster, can use as much time to come together as a group as they can get. But the preparation that goes into a match will be the same whether it's done here or there, and as long as there aren't problems with the flight that keep them from having a practice session on Saturday, the travel should not affect the team.
Quake, Rattle and Goal: Fabian Espíndola can be a frustrating player to watch at times in that he can drift out of games. How has Fabi's playing style and general demeanor been accepted by his new teammates, and should we expect to see a different player than when he was with Real Salt Lake?
Once a Metro: Espíndola joins the Red Bulls with a major stamp of approval from captain Thierry Henry, who always publicly admired his talent whenever New York played against Real Salt Lake. After just one game, it's obvious why. Against Portland, Espíndola was able to play off of Henry well, creating space and making slashing runs for New York's midfield to play passes onto while still putting himself in great positions to score on two Timbers miscues.
Nothing against Espíndola's former teammates, but something tells me that being surrounded by Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill, and Juninho will provide the environment for Espíndola to have his best MLS season yet. Specifically in terms of drifting out of games, I've always seen him go all-out when he plays until he runs out of gas. Hopefully, under the 4-3-3 system that Mike Petke is implementing with players interchanging positions and taking on different roles throughout the game, Espíndola won't need to spend as much time chasing and stretching the defense as he did sometimes exclusively with Salt Lake.
Quake, Rattle and Goal: Rookie head coach Mike Petke was recently quoted as saying he will give his defenders the same message he always has as to how best to neutralize Chris Wondolowski -- never take your eyes off of him. Who on the Red Bulls back four will be tasked with marking Wondolowski, and just how effective do you expect him to be?
Once a Metro: One of the reasons why Wondolowski is such an effective player is that he covers a lot of ground and has the freedom to roam from sideline to sideline, making him incredibly difficult for defenses to mark. Last week, most of his forward play in Real Salt Lake's defensive third came on the right side of the San Jose's attack. If that stays the same against New York, left back Roy Miller and left center back Heath Pearce will have their hands full.
Any success containing Wondolowski will require a true six-man effort including good communication from goalkeeper Luis Robles and support from defensive midfielder Dax McCarty in addition to a solid back line performance. Based on a shaky defensive start to the season against Portland, however, I will be surprised if Wondolowski does not score on Sunday night.
Once a Metro: The Earthquakes held their own and created a number of chances but ultimately gave up two second-half goals in their season opening loss at home against Real Salt Lake. How much did the team's injury woes affect the outcome, and how will head coach Frank Yallop shuffle the lineup without Steven Beitashour, Alan Gordon, Steven Lenhart, Marvin Chavez, Dan Gargan, and now possibly Mike Fucito?
Quake, Rattle and Goal: Injuries to key players did not prevent the Earthquakes from beating Real Salt Lake, but they did contribute to weakening the bench and curtailing the team's efforts at a late comeback. With their backs broken by Alvaro Saborío's goal against the run of play in the 71st minute, the Quakes weren't able to throw in the same players at the end of the game in the same way they did last season; subsequently, the never-say-die magic of 2012 never materialized on the night.
Yallop will likely, if Mike Fucito is unable to play, rely on untested rookie target forward Adam Jahn. The Supplemental Draft pick from nearby Stanford University earned plenty of minutes during the preseason, and even made a 15 minute cameo against RSL, but is nowhere near as dangerous as either Steven Lenhart or Alan Gordon at the same position. After Jahn, the only other healthy forward left in the corps is fellow rookie Alexandre Gonzalez Emerson, and he has even less experience playing with the Quakes. Moving a midfielder up top, perhaps Sam Garza, is not out of the question, especially since he does have experience playing at forward while at UC Santa Barbara. If Yallop does not trust Jahn to have a successful first ever MLS start, he could go with the wildcard Garza.
Once a Metro: What's the latest on former Red Bull Mehdi Ballouchy? How did he fit in with the Earthquakes after being traded from New York but before his season ending injury? Do you think he figures into Frank Yallop's plans once he's back and healthy?
Quake, Rattle and Goal: Ballouchy is slowly working himself back into health following surgery late last season to repair a knee injury. The Moroccan midfielder fit in very nicely upon arriving in San Jose last season, and, not surprisingly to Red Bulls observers, played as more of a possession than a attack minded contributor. Filling in for an injured Simon Dawkins, and able to take the place of Marvin Chavez on occasion, Ballouchy was more than just a stop-gap pick up for the Quakes. Coach Yallop expected him to be a big part of the team down the stretch and into the playoffs.
Completing a process that was unusually lengthy, Ballouchy received his green card during the offseason, and he is now able to travel with the team out of the country. With games against Canadian MLS sides and potential Central American and Caribbean nations opponents in the CONCACAF Champions League on the summer schedule, Ballouchy's new status as a green card holder is very important to the Earthquakes.
Once a Metro: San Jose's schedule will get pretty crazy this summer when they enter CONCACAF Champions League play and even more so if they make a run for the Open Cup. When the team is back to or at least closer to full strength, can the Earthquakes compete on all fronts? Will they?
Quake, Rattle and Goal: The silver lining to having so many front-line starters on the injured list is that they won't be getting banged up in the early months of the MLS season and could be in great shape for the U.S. Open Cup and CCL tournaments this summer. The Earthquakes front office has said they want to see the team find success on multiple fronts this season, especially with construction on the new Earthquakes stadium underway, and a slated early 2104 opening date on the horizon. Entering that new era of San Jose soccer would be that much more meaningful if the Quakes had some additional trophies to share to their Bay Area fans.
The hardest part for the Earthquakes will be balancing a brutal late May schedule - just when the 16 domestic MLS sides enter the tournament - with a lengthy regular season road trip that spans from May 18 to June 29. The Quakes had the same gap in their home schedule last season, but they still managed to get to the quarterfinal round of the USOC. Fortunately for San Jose, the CCL gets started at about the same time their schedule loosens up. If the club is already eliminated from the USOC by then, they'll have no trouble fielding strong starting XIs for each of the four CCL group stage matches.