Somehow, through six months and twenty-six games, the Portland Timbers have not yet played the San Jose Earthquakes. Though they did meet in the pre-season at Providence Park, Sunday's game represents the first proper meeting between the teams in 2014. So what exactly is up with San Jose and how have they gotten to a point where their hopes for a playoff position rest so squarely on the remaining three games against the Timbers? We turned to Centerline Soccer's Nerdy Gales for answers:
1. After two wins in late July/early August seemed to put the Earthquakes back on track, it's now been five straight games without a win. What's happened in late summer as San Jose has drifted away from the playoff race?
The last win came against and Seattle, at the inaugural game at Levi's Stadium (The Field of Jeans) on August 2nd - and boy does that feel like a long time ago. The Quakes were already missing Lenhart up front, and Gordon was left on the bench in disgrace prior to his trade to LA. That game's goal scorer, SL Benfica loaner Yannick Djalo, injured his quadriceps in that game and has yet to resurface in the Quakes' lineup. The Wondolowski-Djaló combination (Wondjálowski?) was starting to become effective - they both read the game well and were starting to understand each other.
The Quakes defense has also leaked thirteen goals in the last five games, as the defense crumbles through exhaustion - the continued absence of Andreas Gorlitz and Clarence Goodson, followed by Victor Bernardez with a broken nose was good for five goals against FC Dallas. Dallas were clearly the better side that night, but the remaining defense remains stretched while they await the long-rumored signing of Uruguayan defender Pablo Pintos.
2. With high profile signings absent due to injury and Alan Gordon traded to LA Galaxy, is Chris Wondolowski the only legitimate scoring threat on Sunday?
It's not clear whether Steven Lenhart is ready to return just yet - sorry Portland, I know how much you love him. This leaves only Adam Jahn and Billy Schuler, neither of whom has seen much playing time in 2014 (6 and 123 minutes respectively). So, expect Wondo up top, and a gaggle of midfielders trying their best to get the ball to him. Notably, midfielder Sam Cronin has scored a goal in each of the two last games, but Portland's top five goal scorers have thirty-four goals compared to the Earthquakes twenty - that says it all.
Unfortunately, the Quakes second DP, Matias Perez Garcia, played only two games after which he received surgery on a torn meniscus. Frankly, fragility has been the story of too many of the foreign players signed by the club (Zura, Gorlitz, Garcia, Djaló), and, with the demise of Garcia, the band of fans calling out the front office for their injury-prone signings is growing ever larger.
3. If there's any hope of playoff qualification, three games against Portland will have a lot to do with the Earthquakes' stretch run. Is an away draw an acceptable result at this point, or does San Jose need wins?
The glib answer is "no, an away draw is not acceptable". Even with a win, and two games in hand over the other teams in the Western Conference, it's hard to envisage the Quakes making the playoffs. The injuries have been key to the team's inconsistency that has plagued this season, and they've forced Coach Mark Watson's hand to play a predictable formation: Salinas, Harris/Cato on the wings with and no one to play straight up the middle. Much too easy to defend.
This is where 19-year-old rookie phenom Tommy Thompson comes in - the first Earthquakes home grown product. He has pace, agility and some mad ball control skills. As yet, he hasn't quite acquired a rapport with the rest of the team - which will surely come with more playing time. The Quakes fans are excited to see Thompson play and were baying early for his inclusion in the squad, but by now he probably won't have time to save the Quakes season. This weekend Thompson has been held back from an opportunity to play for the USMNT U20 squad, so at least Watson seems to feel the Earthquakes still have a chance to make the playoffs, and that chance (and perhaps Watson's job) hinges on 19 year old Tommy Thompson.
GK: Jon Busch
DEF: Shaun Francis, Victor Bernardez, Jason Hernandez, Jordan Stewart.
MID: Atiba Harris, Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi, Tommy Thompson, Sam Cronin, Shea Salinas.
FWD: Chris Wondolowski
(Sub in Lenhart (if available) at forward for Pierrazzi)
My answers to Nerdy's questions:
1. Portland are coming off an impressive 3-0 in Vancouver, with the contributions of Jorge Villafaña and Alvas Powell as key - does Caleb Porter finally have the squad that he wants (and needs) in place to make the playoffs?
Wow, tough question right off the bat. And that's mostly because Michael Harrington and Jack Jewsbury were the left and right backs in the Timbers team that made the playoffs in 2013. However, it's true that they have not been as good this year and that most recently both Villafana and Powell did quite well. Villafana was a solid contributor earlier in the year, starting eight or so games in a row and contributing a number of assists and even goal from his left back position. Powell was a bit of a disaster early on, highlighted by his atrocious red card against Columbus Crew. But after a spell on loan in USL Pro, the young Jamaican came back to shine in Guyana in the Champions League and then again on Saturday in Vancouver. Porter would prefer to have a high flying attack with outside backs bombing forward and providing width that the midfield usually lacks (especially given Rodney Wallace will be absent due to a Costa Rica call up). Chances are the two youngsters will start again on Sunday afternoon, but that does not necessarily mean we've seen the last of Harrington, Jewsbury or even Danny O'Rourke (or Liam Ridgewell for that matter, if things are dire). Porter is a system guy but also a pragmatist enough to know that if the Villafana/Powell pairing doesn't work out against San Jose this weekend, he probably won't use them again in the two final games in this strange grouping of games.
2. Portland's remaining MLS schedule is full of winnable games - including three against San Jose. How do you perceive the importance (to the club) of the three additional CCL games going down the stretch in MLS?
CCL is looming large, especially in a season where other possible trophies are now impossible. Not that the Timbers expect to win the Champions League, but advancement to the quarterfinals would be a really nice result of what has been a pretty frustrating season. The games certainly complicate the process of qualifying for the playoffs but with the next two games at home (both in mid-September) a place in the knock out rounds can be all but assured by simply winning two home games. The final game is in Honduras but provided Portland wins its next two CCL games by a comfortable total margin, a fully reserve team is expected to travel to face Olimpia in October. If something goes wrong this month, however, it presents a very difficult scenario with a game at FC Dallas to close the regular season just days after the trip to Honduras. Porter will want to get as much as possible from the two home games, especially with the team's depth at a peak and plenty of quality players available to secure that advancement.
3. Portland has a diverse set of attacking options - who should the Earthquakes be concerned about dealing with the most?
Diego Valeri is absolutely the answer to this question. Though others have scored goals in the past few games, Valeri is always the most capable option for Portland. That is especially true this year as Darlington Nagbe has failed to score a single goal in the regular season, despite actually performing very well all year. Maximiliano Urruti has a bundle of goals and Fanendo Adi is always capable of scoring twice in a game, but Valeri is the key to it all. He might not score all the goals, but when he doesn't he's almost always involved in the build up. San Jose would do well to try to reduce Valeri's touches, just as Diego Chara did to Pedro Morales last weekend. But as you mentioned, the diverse set of options keeps Portland well equipped to attack, even if Valeri is corralled.