Can the San Jose Earthquakes win with possession? New era, new answers to come Saturday

SAN JOSE, Calif. – To San Jose midfielder Rafael Baca, identifying one of the Earthquakes’ biggest offensive problems this season takes no keen sense of deduction. It’s just that recognizing a deficiency and rectifying it are two vastly different things.

So when new interim coach Mark Watson had the Quakes working on their possession game this week in advance of his first match at the helm – a trip to Colorado on Saturday night (9 pm ET, MLS free stream of the week) – it was a familiar theme for the 23-year-old.

“Keeping more of the ball, I feel like we keep saying that’s what we should do, that’s how we got used to playing last year,” Baca told reporters earlier this week. “We have said it many times, but we don’t do it on the field. ... It’s all up to us to do it on the field, and I feel that’s what he’s trying to get across to us right now.”

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The Quakes will never be mistaken for practitioners of tiki-taka, but the central midfield pairing of Baca and Sam Cronin were invaluable contributors last year to the club’s franchise record 72-goal haul. With their grit and nearly faultless decision-making, they helped the Quakes keep cycling the ball to their playmakers, who had a field day in the opposition’s penalty area.

This season, that connection has been too often short-circuited, and – as Baca points out – despite knowledge of the problem, San Jose has yet to solve it during their current 1-5-5 slide in MLS play.

“It’s tough to give the exact answer for it, but it definitely stems from movement off the ball,” Cronin said of the club’s midfield struggles. “That’s kind of the first step in being a good possession team. We’ve got to make sure our movement’s better. And from there, just technically, we need to connect simple passes, which we’ve struggled doing -- whether it’s confidence or whatever – recently. We’re looking to fix those things this weekend.”

The hope for San Jose, who have been outscored 10-1 in their last five matches, is that renewed strength in possession will lead to a resurgence from last year’s goal-scoring triumvirate of Chris Wondolowski (27 goals in 2012), Alan Gordon (13) and Steven Lenhart (10). While Wondolowski is in a slump, he at least has five goals; both Gordon and Lenhart, who set MLS career bests last year, have been kept off scoresheets for the entire 2013 schedule after undergoing offseason surgery.

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“The first thing was getting them healthy, and I think they’re getting there,” Watson said of Gordon and Lenhart. “Any time you have someone out for five or six months, it takes them a while to get to 100 percent, even if they’re playing. ... They’re working hard, they’re working on all the things they need to work on to improve their performance.

“I think ultimately, though, it’s us getting the balls in the right areas to give them service to score goals. Those guys need service. They’re a big part of the buildup of how we get to the attacking third, but for those guys, they need service to score goals, and it’s going to be one of our jobs to give them that service.”