San Jose Earthquakes are the visitors to Colorado on Saturday looking to put last week's 3-0 drubbing at the hands of Real Salt Lake behind them and get Mark Watson's reign as Head Coach off to a good start. The Rapids, who are undefeated since April, will be further boosted by the return to health of Jaime Castrillon and Martin Rivero who should both play some part in proceedings.
Pre-match conditions are very similar to when the Rapids and San Jose last faced off on May 18th with the Earthquakes looking to bounce back from a bad defeat and Colorado with the momentum. San Jose got thumped last time out by a resurgent RSL who outplayed them in pretty much all aspects of the game and didn't let the Earthquakes dominate on the ground or in the air.
However, with this being Mark Watson's first MLS game as a Head Coach, it is an unknown as to how the Earthquakes will respond. Usually it is typical of teams to pick up their performances when a new man comes in, with individuals wanting to cement a first-team spot, but with San Jose it feels a little different. It seems that there wasn't any ill-will held towards Yallop with many coming out in support of him with some (Alan Gordon) claiming that he wouldn't want to work under anyone else. They are professional footballers so it shouldn't be looked into too deeply but it doesn't strike me as a team that is ready to go out there and give a performance unlike any other so far this season.
Although Watson has said that he intends his team to play less direct and more patient in possession, it may take more than a few weeks to change the philosophy after Yallop's lengthy period at the helm. Adding to that that they don't really have the players to play a possession-based game, it is unlikely there will be much of a change in style or approach from San Jose this weekend.
The strengths of the team remain. The power of their forward line is probably unrivaled within MLS with Steven Lenhart, Alan Gordon and Adam Jahn all powerful in the air which could pose a threat to the Rapids defence. This year though they have barely contributed with Gordon and Lenhart both failing to score so far. Chris Wondolowski, who was made DP over the off-season, hasn't contributed to the scoring charts as much as expected with only five goals to his name in 15 games.
The pace of the Earthquakes wide men is usually another significant threat that a team has to contend with when planning their strategy against San Jose. However, the Rapids have pace in abundance at fullback with both Chris Klute and Marvell Wynne rapid across the ground, having enough about them to keep Marvin Chavez and friends quiet.
At the back, the Victor Bernardez-Jason Hernandez partnership is solid but is one that has not been available for many games this campaign. When it is together though, as seen last season, it can be a formidable pairing. The lack of defensive continuity is one of the reasons why the Earthquakes find themselves where they are - 2nd bottom of the West - and even Bernardez-Hernandez haven't been able to stop the rot.
It is here where the Rapids should take full advantage. The pace of Deshorn Brown, as always, should roast this backline but he really needs to improve his composure in front of goal which has been his Achilles heel. Atiba Harris on Justin Morrow is a mismatch too, and Harris could do some damage on crosses from the left if he is one-v-one in an aerial duel with Morrow. And if Nana Attakora plays, then anything is possible for the Rapids!
Shane O'Neill and Drew Moor should adequately deal with the threat in the air of Jahn, Gordon or Lenhart but they need to keep their eyes on the movement of Wondo who thrives off knockdowns and ricochets. Wondolowski hasn't exactly lit it up in comparison with 2012 but still provides their biggest threat going forward. Stopping the service is all-important for Colorado and this rests on Wynne and Klute having a good game against the pacey San Jose wingers.
If the Rapids can win the battle in midfield, which they have done so in many of the games so far, then that is half the battle won already as it will ensure that there is little for the Earthquakes frontline to feed off. Up top, the key is to isolate the fullbacks in one-v-one situations both on the floor and in the air in which Brown and Harris should have the beating of their opposite numbers. If they are successful in this, and providing that the reaction to Watson's installation as Head Coach is minimal, the Rapids should have enough in their tank to stretch this unbeaten run further and jump into one of the playoff spots.