Colorado Rapids head off on another road trip, this time out west to face off against San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday evening looking to extend their winning streak to three. With little transfer movement of any significance over the off-season, the Earthquakes came into 2013 with much the same first team as their previous Supporters' Shield winning team of 2012. The results haven't matched however, picking up only three wins so far as they sit 6th in the West.
They have suffered from injuries and suspensions though, missing several players each week and having to rely on a young rookie up front, Adam Jahn, to steal points towards the end of every game. Jahn has pitched in with four goals so far - not bad for a guy who wasn't even invited to the combine. Last time out San Jose were smashed by Seattle Sounders 4-0 despite having more attempts at goals and more possession. The result is pretty indicative of their season so far - letting in a tonne of goals. With only one win in their last eight (and that being against Toronto FC) the Earthquakes aren't coming into this one in any sort of form, which is in contrast with the Rapids who seem full of confidence at the minute, looking to extend their run to three wins in a row.
Criticism of the style of the Earthquakes play follows them around wherever they go. Everyone knows how they are going to be set up and that they are going to play direct, using the aerial ability of their forward pairing but it still remains difficult to stop it. Frank Yallop loves his 4-4-2 with the central pairing acting sometimes as what you could call a double-pivot but then others as a simple diamond with Walter Martinez (Rapids reject) for the last few games at the top and Sam Cronin sat in the defensive midfield slot.
As with the central midfield spots, out wide the Earthquakes have also had their depth tested. Marvin Chavez, Rafael Baca, Shea Salinas and Ramiro Corrales have been interchanging for most of the season, with the preferred duo of Chavez and Salinas missing out in the defeat in Seattle. The pace of Chavez and Salinas could prove difficult to deal with and Chavez at least looks likely to start considering his ban for the match was rescinded this week. Typically, the way the Earthquakes play is that they focus down the wings and deliver as many balls as possible into the box, constantly piling the pressure on the defence hoping it caves in and they can tap in a scrappy goal.
Up top, it's looking as though Chris Wondolowski with his new designated-player status will be partnered by Alan Gordon just like in Seattle despite Jahn's goals so far this season. Jahn sat out last weekend's defeat due to a thigh injury but should be fit for this weekend to challenge Gordon for a starting spot. The obvious danger with these is their strength and aerial ability. The Rapids backline will have to employ one centreback as the more aggressive one, challenging for every aerial ball whilst the other covers in behind in case of any flick-ons. Wondo thrives on these flick-ons/knockdowns so he is going to have to be watched very carefully by the other defender (probably Drew Moor as opposed to Shane O'Neill).
The strengths of this San Jose team could be said to lie not in the physical or technical side of their game but in their mental strength. This ‘Goonie Magic' or whatever silly name it has been given is mostly just the fact that the Earthquakes retain the belief that they can still get a result no matter how late on in the game it is. Inevitably, if you are going to put the ball in the box that often then chances will eventually come and their forwards are always prepared for any ricocheted balls or fortuitous bounces. It is a style of play that has many detractors but for me, if it wins games then that is all that matters. There is a nice way to play football and there is the Earthquakes way of playing football but there's no argument against its effectiveness, particularly last season. The Rapids just have to get a handle on the battles in the air - if they don't win the first ball, make sure that they are onto that second one without hesitation or we will get punished.
Whilst they do threaten up front, their defence has been particularly poor recently, giving up 10 goals in their last five games. Nana Attakora's return to San Jose after a stint in Finland has not been a happy one. The breakup of the Jason Hernandez-Victor Bernardez pairing has coincided with the Earthquakes shipping goals for fun and seems to be the way through this team. With the Rapids missing Edson Buddle after the ridiculous decision from the MLS Disciplinary Committee to ban him (for a foul committed under the referee's nose, for which he was cautioned), DeShorn Brown could be started down the middle and would have a lot of fun against Hernandez in particular.
The Rapids are going to have to be wary of a team on the rebound after being battered by the Sounders and assume the Earthquakes are going to come out all guns blazing from the off on Saturday. For Colorado to get anything out of the game they are going to have to score more than once and keep the frontline of San Jose quiet by mopping up the second balls and, if possible reducing the amount of crossing opportunities. At the other end, there isn't exactly a specific weakness in the San Jose defence that is worse than the other parts. As a whole it is a pretty shoddy defence without the Bernardez-Hernandez partnership and will give up a few chances that the Rapids strikers will have to take. If we manage to restrict the mayhem that can be caused up top by the Earthquakes' battering rams we could be in with a good shout of getting a result to take on the plane with us back home.