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Crew face rare challenge, opportunity against San Jose Earthquakes

The Black & Gold have to figure out one of the most difficult teams to play against this weekend.

MLS: San Jose Earthquakes at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Columbus Crew SC is about to find out something the rest of Major League Soccer learned throughout the 2019 season: the San Jose Earthquakes are not the San Jose Earthquakes of previous seasons.

At one point in MLS history, the Earthquakes played at Spartan Stadium, the most narrow field in the league. The team, which won MLS Cup titles in 2001 and 2003, were built to play on the narrow pitch, something that often threw off the opponent.

Then there was “The Goonie” Earthquake teams, that played hard and never said die, known for their dramatic, come-from-behind style.

But beginning this year, under new head coach Matias Almeyda, who has managed clubs such as River Plate and Chivas, San Jose has changed completely, shifting into playing dominant football.

The Earthquakes play a strict man-to-man system where they follow their marker all over the field defensively. On offense, they spread out from sideline to sideline, pulling the opponent with them.

“I think they have a very clear way of playing and they’re good at executing it,” Crew head coach Caleb Porter said this week of San Jose.

“We’ve analyzed their team extensively like we do every single opponent. There are some similarities to the game versus New York in terms of breaking their pressure, in terms of their man-oriented pressing style. But there are also a lot of differences as well. They’re a much better possession team than New York. They’re one of the best passing teams in the league.”

This style is working for the Earthquakes. After losing the team’s first four games of the season as the players adjusted to Almeyda, the Quakes have lost just three times since and currently sit in fourth place in the Western Conference with just one loss in the last 11 games. Heading to Avaya Stadium on Saturday night, the Crew hope to become just the fourth team this year to defeat San Jose at home.

While the Black & Gold just played the New York Red Bulls, winning 3-2 on the road and tactically pulling apart their man-pressure system, the Earthquakes present some different issues.

“Red Bull is man orientated as well but it’s not as purely man to man as San Jose is,” Columbus captain Wil Trapp said. “They’re high press is a little bit more direct with the Red Bulls than with San Jose. San Jose might drop back into a mid-block a bit more and then allow them to pick up their guys when that happens instead of Red Bulls who are always trying to come at you no matter where you are on the field, mostly in your back half.”

This style is something you don’t see very often. In today’s soccer, most teams play a combination of zonal and man-marking and don’t necessarily stay tight to their man all over the field. The Earthquakes are different though and it’s tough for an opponent to adjust to.

But there are ways.

Given the man-marking, the Black & Gold must use the Quakes’ aggressiveness against them. Columbus needs to make runs to pull players out of position in order to open up the space for others.

“There are a lot of ways in which you can pull guys out of position, capitalize on those moments of switching,” Trapp explained. “As a guy runs into a space that’s uncomfortable for the man marker, it can help us free up space for guys.”

The key will be recognizing moments. As one player makes a run off the ball, another must realize that space has opened and the player on the ball must also recognize where it needs to be played.

“We need to support the guy who have the ball and run behind the line because if they want to press high, for sure they let open the back so we need to prepare to play out and behind the lines. We are working hard in these moments,” midfielder Pedro Santos said.

But it’s not just how to unlock San Jose that will be key for the Crew. The Earthquakes are second in MLS in both possession and passing accuracy, something uncharacteristic for a Quakes team. They use all the space on the field and keep the ball away from the opponent, making it hard for them to score.

For Columbus, the key will be patience when without the ball. The Crew has been good all year at defending out of the middle block and that will be key in this game. There’s no reason to pressure and get pulled out of position when San Jose has the ball at the back because that’s where they will punish you.

“We’ve seen a few teams that have similar shape when they attack,” Porter said. “Dallas early in the year was similar in the way they create the three (in the back) and really wide out their center backs. Seattle did that as well. So we’ve seen a lot of teams.”

For the Crew, this game is another opportunity. After at 10-game winless streak, the Black & Gold are quickly unbeaten in the last three games, including two straight wins. While there’s confidence among the team, which still has playoff aspirations, the players understand more results will only come through hard work.

If Columbus can go on the road again and find a way to breakdown and contain the Earthquakes, it could be another major step in turning around the 2019 season.

“We need all of them,” Trapp said of the remaining games. “We can’t change the mentality of being hungry, having intensity and committing ourselves to each other and what the plan is. What’s worked for us in the past two games is good but we can’t rest on that at all.”