MLS playoff preview: San Jose at Los Angeles
San Jose’s 2012 success has been so thorough that we forget - they’re not supposed to be here. A few ambitious prognosticators picked Frank Yallop’s team to content for the playoffs, but nobody expected a near start-to-finish run to the Supporters’ Shield. Along the way, the Earthquakes have received individual performances worthy of the league’s best player, defender, and coach awards. It’s been a truly magical season.
So far, at least. One of the harsh realities of a playoff system is the perspective it puts on the regular season. If San Jose goes on a playoff run, it will an ultimate, validating context to the team’s incredible season. If, however, San Jose is derailed, 2012 will live in the polite reminders of weary-hearted supporters. Exiting at the round of eight would be too sooner, even for a team that’s shrugged off modest expectations.
Against that back drop enters the LA Galaxy - defending MLS champions, the league’s best team over the last four years, with a squad that’s narrowed its eyes on the `Quakes after the teams’ most recent, highly volatile encounter.
Among MLS quartet of captivating conference semifinals, a two-legged California Clasico may be the round’s headline matchup.
Kickoff: 9:00 p.m. Eastern, Sunday, Home Depot Center, ESPN
On the LA Galaxy:
- What to make of LA’s struggles against Vancouver? On one hand, they had unexpected trouble with a team that was among the league’s worst in the second half. But one-off goals can happen to the best of teams. When they come early enough to put a favorite behind, random goals can take-on undo importance. If Matt Watson beat Hector Jimenez after LA had already scored, no alarms would have ever been sound.
- The main thing to take from Thursday’s match may not be any Galaxy weakness but the potential effect on their fitness. The early goal forced the veteran team to chase a match for near-70 minutes. Now the ywelcome the league’s best team - a notoriously physical one - on only two days’ rest. It’s a bad set of circumstances for a team whose three main players (David Beckham, Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane) are a combined 99 years old.
- More trouble in LaLa Land: Injuries are mounting. A.J. DeLaGarza and Sean Franklin missed Thursday’s game, forcing Jimenez to play right back. Franklin may return. DeLaGarza won’t. Meanwhile, LA’s best midfielder, Juninho, got kicked in an Achilles against Vancouver and, as of Friday, was still feeling pain.
- Last meeting in San Jose (on Oct. 21) left LA with a bad taste in their mouths, the defending champions giving up two leads en route to a 2-2 draw. The headlines post-match centered on Galaxy criticisms of San Jose’s style of play, with one prominent LA player calling the Earthquakes “a bunch of jokes.”
- That player was defender Omar Gonzalez, the man who has to deal with the likes of Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon. The 24-year-old defender has been a key part of the Galaxy’s mid-season about face, solidifying the defense after returning mid-season from knee injury. With others’ injuries leaving Bruce Arena’s defense in disrepair, it’s hard to imagine LA advancing without a big series from from the reigning Defender of the Year.
On the San Jose Earthquakes:
- San Jose finished the regular season with the league’s best record, no small feat considering the depth at the top of the West. You’d expect four title contenders to take points off each other, but the Earthquakes avoided that peril, posting a 8-0-1 record against Real Salt Lake, Seattle, and the LA Galaxy (San Jose did lose in U.S. Open Cup play to a largely second-choice Sounders).
- The basis of that success was stellar attack, led by new (joint) single-season goal-scoring champion Chris Wondolowski. Wondo’s 27 goals were nine more than the league’s second most-prolific scorer, though the team’s league-leading 72 goals (13 more than the next-best team, LA) were helped by 14 goals from Alan Gordon, 10 from Steven Lenhart, and eight from Simon Dawkins.
- A big part of that production is San Jose’s late game efficiency, the ‘Goonies’ having developed a flare for the dramatic. Against a LA team that’s being thinned out by accumulated miles and persisting knocks, the Earthquakes could be in for more late match success.
- In-game attrition will be a factor, also, no matter Gonzalez’s disdain for the tactic. The physicality of Lenhart and Gordon always stresses a defense, as does Frank Yallop’s willingness to play so heavily into a direct tactic. San Jose’s battlers free up Wondolowski, one of the league’s best poachers, and with the service of Martin Chavez, the forwards are sure to be delivered a dangerous ball.
- Adding to opposition difficulties is San Jose’s depth, a collection of talent that allows the team to assume a completely (but equally effective) look while chasing games. Yallop’s bench will likely feature Shea Salinas, Khari Stephenson, Ramiro Corrales, Ike Opara and Gordon, though the new U.S. international is questionable with an ankle problem.