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Preview: Timbers vs. Earthquakes

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SOCCER: APR 06 MLS - Portland Timbers at San Jose Earthquakes Photo by Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In the MLS is Back Tournament, the San Jose Earthquakes won three of their matches, drew against Seattle, and were knocked out by Minnesota United. For the second time this season, the Loons were able to best San Jose by a less-than-flattering score line. The Quakes lost 5-2 to Minnesota in the regular season and 4-1 in the quarterfinals of the MLS is Back Tournament.

Minnesota has become something of a bogey team for San Jose coach Matias Almeyda: He has never won against them while coaching the San Jose Earthquakes. MLS as a whole has struggled to find a consistent way to disrupt San Jose, but Minnesota’s Adrian Heath seems to have the secret. So it’s interesting to examine how his team has executed a game plan against Almeyda’s man-marking system.

Man-Marking System

San Jose usually selects the same starting eleven and makes use of all five substitutes. The Quakes play a unique, high-energy, and hard-pressing man-to-man system. They are usually listed in a 4-3-3 formation, but the actual formation carries little weight in terms of how they will play.

The formation usually shows what players will be in which areas on the pitch and can give you an idea about the organization of the defensive lines. But with San Jose, it is much more complicated. Players are not responsible for defending certain spaces on the pitch, they are responsible for the man they are marking. For example, if wingback Nick Lima is responsible for Sebastian Blanco, and Blanco drops deep into the midfield, Lima will vacate the space on the wing to track Blanco into the middle of the park.

This system allows them to constantly pressure the ball. They attempt to turn the ball over as soon as possible with their fervent counter-press and transition upfield as quickly as they can, exploiting the lack of compactness of the team who just lost the ball.

MLS: Real Salt Lake vs San Jose Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

It’s also hard to defend San Jose. The Quakes are very offensive-minded. The system they play ensures that goals will be scored on one end or the other, but they have the confidence they will outscore you.

San Jose shares its goal-scoring load across a variety of players. The usual suspects have included Chris Wondolowski, Cristian Espinoza and Magnus Eriksson, with others chipping in as well. But Eriksson is no longer at San Jose. After the tournament, he was transferred back to his native Sweden. It will be interesting to see how Almeyda tries to fill the hole left by the Swede.

How Portland Can Exploit San Jose

The midfield duo of Diego Chara and Eryk Williamson will be integral in disrupting the rhythm of the Earthquakes. When San Jose is building in possession, they often try to create a spare man or outlet. By doing this, they create a numerical advantage and can then pass through the defense. Judson and Jackson Yueill are usually the ones who drop deep to create the advantage.

Portland’s compact defense will look to plug passing lanes and limit the effectiveness of these numerical advantages. But when pressing or after losing the ball, Williamson and Chara’s defensive pressuring ability could help limit the effectiveness of Judson and Yueill especially.

Yueill dictates the tempo for San Jose. He is the pressure-release valve and can also be deadly in possession by playing penetrative through-balls and by switching the point of attack. Portland’s double pivot will have their hands full with the Quakes style of play, but they have shown their ability to disrupt almost any midfield they come across.

The man-marking system combined with the high-tempo is extremely difficult to maintain throughout 90 minutes. Portland will have opportunities, but will need to be much crisper in the final third than they were against Seattle.

MLS: Seattle Sounders FC at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Lima and Tommy Thompson often join the midfield or attacking line from their wingback position when the Quakes are in possession. When they are really high up the pitch, sometimes one of the center backs even joins the midfield. If San Jose turns the ball over in the middle of the pitch, it can be up to one center back and the goalkeeper to cut out dangerous counter attacks.

Minnesota did a really good job of staying wide and winning individual battles against San Jose. If Portland is able to stay wide, it will make it harder for the Quakes to defend. Staying wide makes it so the man-to-man system is spread thin across the entire pitch, leaving large amounts of space.

This is something Portland can exploit. The Timbers have the individual quality to play long balls into open space and win one vs. one battles. If the Timbers are able to win these one vs. ones, then it leaves a man unmarked with no cover because if another defender tries to cover it leaves that defender’s man open. Winning individual battles and crisp combination play is the best and most efficient way to break down San Jose and create dangerous goal-scoring opportunities.

Overall, Portland will have to play much better than they did against the Sounders. The Timbers need to improve on their intensity, the crispness of their passes and their finishing. Portland’s defensive structure has the ability to slow down San Jose, and they are equipped to take advantage of the holes in Almeyda’s man-marking system.

If we see the Portland we saw in Orlando, the Timbers have the quality to pick up their first three post-bubble points. But if they play like they did on Sunday, they could be at the wrong end of another lopsided score line.