The difference between the obstacle the Seattle Sounders provided and the one that San Jose will offer up would appear to be large, but the Quakes have managed a 4-4-2 record — just one more loss than the Black and Gold in one more game played — and are currently sitting in the fourth spot in the West, ahead of LA Galaxy, Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake (winners of four of the last five MLS Cups)
Last year, San Jose finished dead last in the its conference, and although there was a coaching change with the return of head coach Dominic Kinnear to the Bay Area, is this team really playoff caliber? What will Crew SC have to deal with on Saturday? And what's with all the bald dudes donning a Quake uni (I count five)?
Here's a quick breakdown of this weekend's opponent in an attempt to answer some of those questions:
San Jose is currently averaging one goal per game and its 10 total goals is 11th out of 12 teams currently sitting in a playoff spot. In other words — the Earthquakes are not where they are right now because of their attack. That's not all that different from a year ago, when they were 19th of 20 MLS teams in goals scored.
Right now, the injury bug is digging its teeth into the Quakes again. The club brought in designated player Innocent Emeghara, who looked to be a dynamic addition. But he underwent knee surgery last week to repair a torn meniscus, and will be out of the picture for nearly the entire season.
Add to that the departure of Tommy Thompson for a few weeks for the Under-20 World Cup and San Jose's attack will be handcuffed against Columbus.
Currently Kinnear is running out a 4-1-4-1 that plays more like a 4-1-3-1-1 in the attack.
As every MLS fan knows, the Earthquake attack revolves around Chris Wondolowski (five goals), one of the elite goal scorers in the league. New for Wondo this year, though, is a deeper role. Although he is positioned in the midfield on paper, don't think for an instant that will effect his ability to get into the penalty area — that's still his top priority.
What the deeper role has done has allowed Wondo to get on the ball more while being able to play off of target man Adam Jahn up top, who loves to flick on for a running Wondolowski. Let's be honest — Jahn is big but not much more than that. His purpose is solely to provide a foil for his poaching partner.
It's been well recorded that what Wondolowski lacks in tangibles he makes up for in his sneaky movement in and around the box and his competitive fire.
The three that play behind those two feature Sanna Nyassi — the epitome of stock MLS bit player (though, according to Univision's Paul Caligiuri, the key to the attack...) — on the right, Shea Salinas on the left and DP Martin Perez Garcia. The latter two are the creators, while Nyassi is just a shuttler up and down the right.
Salinas has been around for a long time and San Jose relies on him quite a bit. Any playing time he lost to Innocent is now 100 percent his. He offers speed on the ball and some attacking ideas, and he tends to stay wide and create width but will occasionally cut in. He's not, primarily, a shot-taker — more of a crosser — and he's second on the team with 1.7 key passes per 90 minutes. He's not afraid to go at people, so Hector Jiménez, assuming he's the starting right back, will have to focus on his 1 v. 1 defending.
MPG is the biggest danger man, though his presence has been hampered by injuries since he arrived midway through last season. He is the more stereotypical creative presence and is fourth in MLS in key passes (25) despite playing less minutes than anyone in the top seven. He averages 2.8 key passes per 90 minutes, which is an elite number.
Not surprisingly, the attack runs through Garcia, who has a touch percentage of .125 (indicative of main playmakers).
The Quakes' attack is balanced across the field with 35 percent, 30 percent and 34 percent from left to right across the field, and MPG will drift to either flank at times. But the final shot nearly always comes from the middle — a 68 percent rate.
That's because the goal is almost always to get the ball to Wondolowski, who may drift deeper than he has in the past but rarely moves out of the central column.
All put together, the San Jose attack is 14th in the league in shots per game (11) and puts 32 percent of those on target. Thirty-nine percent of the shots come from the danger zone, which is a higher rate than Columbus.
That speaks to the fact that most of their shots come from a poaching Wondo or on set pieces. Forty percent of the Earthquake's goals have come on set pieces, which is a major focus for the team with targets like Jahn, defender Victor Bernardez and the aforementioned Wondolowski.
San Jose's attack has not been impressive, but the defense has been good enough thus far to cover some of that in the standings.
The Earthquakes have pulled that off in large part thanks to the introduction of longtime backup goalkeeper David Bingham, who's expected goal differential is -1.92, meaning he's saving more goals than the average keeper. That number puts him in the top third in the league at the moment.
How long that number holds is a question, because Bingham's not necessarily getting tons of help. San Jose allows 41.1 percent of its opponent's shots to come from the danger zone, which is the fourth-worst such number in MLS. Despite the fact they do a decent job getting into those high-quality areas on the other side of the field, the danger zone ratio (.436) is still 17th in the league.
The back line of Marvell Wynne, Clarence Goodson, Bernardez and Jordan Stewart is put under a lot of pressure by an attack that is dead last in possession (44.1 percent) and passing percentage (70.1). That means that the Quakes cough up the ball a lot.
Rookie defensive midfielder Fatai Alashe has done a good job shielding the defense, and certainly has provided a boost. He missed last week with an injury and if he doesn't play will likely be replaced by veteran Khari Stephenson
This looks like a really good matchup for Crew SC. If I'm being honest, San Jose has not looked impressive to the eye, but they've found ways to stay in games. Combining my observations with the numbers, it sure feels like the rug is going to be pulled out from under the Quakes — shall we say the tectonic plates will shift? — at some point.
The Black and Gold should be able to play the game they want. It wouldn't surprise me to see Columbus possess the ball at 60 percent or more against a team that doesn't play a possession game and doesn't press on defense. As we know though, there have been times that Crew SC has struggled to break things down against bunkering sides.
One challenge for Columbus is that San Jose is strong in the air and can defend crosses well. Bernardez is a physical presence and Goodson, who is a Michael Parkhurst type, has proven to defend balls in the air well. Add in Alashe's height and athleticism and Jahn's size defending set pieces, and crosses will be contested.
That said, Crew SC will get chances — I'm guessing 20-plus shots. Bernardez is physical but aging and can be mistake prone due to his aggressiveness. He'll have to make choices with Meram's tendency to cut inside. Wynne is fast and solid defensively, but I would guess Finlay can cause some issues on the other side of the field against Stewart (or Cordell Cato, who is a converted midfielder). Jiménez's ability to overlap with Finlay will also be important to keep Salinas defending and limit his attacking threat.
That would force the Earthquakes to rely on MPG even more, and Mohammed Saeid's night will be busy tracking him. Saeid and Tony Tchani will also have to communicate well with the center backs to pass off Wondolowski, who will find pockets to exploit.
That will be the biggest challenge — communication to avoid losing track of Wondo. Emmanuel Pogatetz should be able to handle the physicality of Jahn.
The biggest keys defensively will be to put pressure on MPG in the midfield to prevent the ball in to Wondolowski, and to avoid fouling in dangerous areas, because San Jose loves its set pieces.
Do those two things and it could be a very good night for Columbus.