Columbus Crew SC’s tour of the western United States continues on Saturday.
Both sides currently sit in similar situations (or predicaments, depending on how you look at it) in the MLS playoff picture, and will vie for critical points this weekend.
Here’s a breakdown at some of the matchups to watch.
At a glance
Record: 8-9-5; 29 points (7th in West; 1.32 ppg)
San Jose has been a different team on the road and at home, taking 22 of its 29 points at home. Those three losses in recent weeks? All on the road, at Atlanta, New York Red Bulls and Seattle, all teams playing well as of late. The last time the Earthquakes defeated a team currently sitting about the playoff line was on May 20, stealing a 1-0 road win at FC Dallas. SJ has lost just once in its last 13 home contests.
Goal leader: Chris Wondolowski (8)
Assist leader: Wondolowski (5), Danny Hoesen (4)
Series history: Columbus is 19-14-7 all-time vs. San Jose, but just 6-11-4 at the Quakes
San Jose’s setup
A lot changed for San Jose following the dismissal of head coach Dominic Kinnear and the transition to Chris Leitch (a former Crew SC player, BTW).
While Kinnear has an impressive MLS resume, his continued stolid reliance on old-school, traditional tactics out of an uninspiring 4-4-2 setup and refusal to open the door for more exciting, younger players, drew a growing share of critics.
Leitch has thrown that book out the window and embraced a new 3-5-2 formation while letting his team breath on the field, also including a couple of young players who got very limited opportunities in the past.
The result is a team that has been more attacking oriented and has often controlled possession (55 percent in each of the last two weeks, including a 3-0 loss on the road to the Seattle Sounders).
The transition has left San Jose occasionally caught between its old habits and its new approach, but expect SJ to have more of the ball and play a little less directly than it has in the past.
The Earthquakes rely heavily on their wingbacks to carry the ball into the attacking third, with rookie homegrown Nick Lima on the right side and a rotation of options on the left.
Here is what San Jose’s ball movement looked like last week against Colorado:
Its outside-in tendencies are quite obvious, and you can see how the wingbacks stay high up the field (as opposed to playing five in the back).
Defensive midfielder Anibal Godoy sat out last week due to yellow card accumulation, but is one of the more underrated players in Major League Soccers, providing a physical presence to break up plays but also skills on the ball. He touches the ball more than anyone else in a Quakes uniform (11.4 touch percentage).
One of the biggest changes under Leitch, personnel-wise, has been the introduction of rookie midfielder Jackson Yueill. Buried in USL under Kinnear, Yueill’s ability as a distributor and passer has been on display. Here’s his distribution against Seattle two weeks ago:
He’s not just a token presence on the field, he has made an impact, and he can distribute from deep or work box to box.
Under Kinnear, San Jose relied on its forward pairing to do a lot of work, and while a lot has changed under Leitch, that has not.
Chris Wondolowski is the spark for this team, and while many like to rag on him for his lack of nerve in front of goal (more than once he’s flamed out spectacularly on bright chances), the reality is his eight-goal tally is solid and he is actually out-performing his expected goals.
Whatever flack Wondo takes, he’s still constantly goal dangerous, and during the last couple of seasons has developed into almost a ramdeuter of sorts, floating deeper and acting as a distributing pivot in and around the 18-yard box.
He’s had a number of partners up top, including Costa Rican international Marcos Urena and Danny Hoesen. The former is a constant worker on and off the ball while Hoesen brings some pace and often drifts wider.
Tommy Thompson has seen his workload increase under Leitch, providing creative flair and willingness to dribble at defenders.
San Jose has not been afraid to rotate players this season, with 11 individuals having played more than 1,000 minutes and five more broaching the 600-minute mark. And Yueill, who is not included in that group, has been a regular starter under Leitch.
While the new coach has given his side more of an attacking bent, on the season San Jose is among the worst teams in the league in goals per game (1.09), and while the Quakes are underachieving slightly in terms of expected goals, even their xG puts them in the bottom third of MLS.
On the flip side, San Jose has been steady defensively, with its xG against fifth in the league (1.23).
Expect to see a back three of newcomer Florian Jungwirth, who has been excellent for the Quakes, veteran Victor Bernardez and Andres Imperiale.
Attacking midfielder Jahmir Hyka is currently out with a hamstring injury. His presence is missed — his 42 key passes is Pipa-esque and among the top tier in MLS.
Notes from last week
San Jose’s new modus operandi was clear against the Colorado Rapids last week, as the Earthquakes controlled possession and heavily utilized their wingbacks (see dashboard above).
Despite that, the Quakes struggled to break down a Rapids side that sat with banks of four and clogged up the middle. For much of the match, San Jose struggled to get the ball to Yueill or Simon Dawkins in the middle of the field.
It wasn’t until the second half that Wondolowski became more of a factor.
That said, San Jose was dangerous on more than one account, but it failed to capitalize. Out of 15 shots in the game, the Quakes managed just two on frame (that’s 13.3 percent). Instead, they needed an excellent deep strike on what otherwise was a failed corner-kick attempt to scrape out the 1-0 score line.
It’s worth noting that the last time San Jose won a game by more than one goal was three months ago.
- Disrupt the wingbacks — It seems rather obvious — you know what San Jose wants to do, so make it difficult. This means making life difficult for the wingbacks and not letting them seamlessly move the ball forward. It’s actually an area where a return to a 4-2-3-1 might help, with extra defensive help wide, but Gregg Berhalter seems to have made a shift to the three-man back line at this point, which at least should help handle balls cross in from wide. Regardless, it should be a major bullet point.
Strong performances from the D-mids — San Jose wants to play through its wide players, but it will also be important to take away other options and force SJ to become one-dimensional. One way to do this will be the play of Wil Trapp and Artur in the defensive midfield.
Part of the reason a stout Colorado side was able to often frustrate the Earthquakes was by clogging up the middle and keeping Yueill and Dawkins off the ball for large chunks of the game. That took away chance creation in the middle of the field and made sure the Rapids knew where the ball would be coming from.
Here’s what a player like Yueill, while inexperienced, is able to do:
With two forwards willing to work off the ball, San Jose got numbers in the midfield and let Yueill use is vision and passing to set up a dangerous free kick.
The organization of Trapp and Artur — as well as communication with center backs to intelligently step up when necessary — in Zone 14 will be key to avoiding these types of plays.
Find the weak points — The wingbacks were already mentioned as a strength for San Jose’s attack, but everything is a give and take. With those wide players pushing as high as they do for the Earthquakes, there will be space behind to expose. That means that players like Justin Meram and Kekutah Manneh or Ethan Finlay have to take advantage of that space, and the rest of the team has to be looking to get them the ball there.
This can help stretch the back three, which can help expose an addition spot I believe can be exploited — Bernardez. While physical and savvy, the big center back is at the tail end of his career and foot speed and defending in space is not his strong suit. Isolating him in space (or forcing him to stay with an always moving Ola Kamara in space) may open up some chances for Crew SC.
These two teams sit in very similar situations in their respective conferences. Crew SC is scraping for every point to try to stay above the red line down the stretch. San Jose has ping-ponged around that postseason cutoff in the West while producing similar up-and-down results to the Black & Gold.
San Jose has been successful at home, and it’s a long road trip to the Pacific coast just a handful of days after the Black & Gold has played at altitude in Utah and made that trip back home.
The Quakes The last team to get any points at Avaya Stadium was Sporting Kansas City on June 17 in a scoreless draw, but SKC is one of the best teams in the West and boasts the best defense in MLS.
That said, getting a point on the road for a second straight week should be considered a very good result for a Columbus side needing to steal any points it can.
Here’s a guess at how the teams will lineup on Saturday: