San Jose Earthquakes glean lessons from first road win of 2013

San Jose defend against Colorado

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USA Today Sports

The San Jose Earthquakes hung on last weekend to post their first road victory of 2013, a 2-1 decision against the Colorado Rapids. But the Quakes left Denver knowing that their defensive performance wasn’t good enough to count on a second straight win away from home coming Saturday against D.C. United (7 pm ET, watch on MLS Live).

Despite playing a man up for the final 72 minutes, San Jose were outshot 18-4 (7-3 in shots on target) by the desperate Rapids. While those stats can partially be ascribed to the fact that Colorado were already chasing the game after Steven Lenhart’s 11th-minute goal, the nail-biting nature of the final 23 minutes – after Nathan Sturgis drew the Rapids within a single score – were not a good look for a Quakes team that is still dead last in MLS in terms of road goal differential, at minus-10.

“First and foremost, we were very happy with the three points; it’s been a while,” Quakes goalkeeper Jon Busch said. “But if you look at it objectively, I don’t think we were happy with how we closed the game off, holding on rather than dictating a little bit more. We knew they were going to push, and they had nothing to lose at home, but we know we can do better possessing the ball and killing the game off there, rather than sitting back and taking as much pressure as we did for the last 20 minutes.”

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The Quakes started out in great shape, both literally and figuratively. Feeling that Colorado overloaded their attacks through Atiba Harris on the right wing, interim San Jose coach Mark Watson came up with a nifty wrinkle, stationing usual center back Nana Attakora on the corner to match up directly against Harris.

Colorado didn’t record a shot attempt before Harris was shown the gate in the 18th minute, and Justin Morrow – who switched positions with Attakora during that timeframe – still found enough room to launch a Route 1 pass that led to Lenhart’s tally.

But instead of retreating and waiting for a counterattacking opportunity – the typical pattern for a team reduced to 10 men – the Rapids doubled down on their attacks. That was a risky move in that it left room behind for San Jose to potentially exploit, but kept the Quakes from settling into a simple-minded style aiming to bleed the clock dry.

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“They pressed high, which completely changed the dynamics of the game,” Watson admitted. “Now we’re in a situation where we want to keep possession, but we don’t want to take risks in our own third. So we were forced to not really play a possession game, and look to go and get the third goal. The dynamics were not what you would find in a typical situation like that.”

The insertion of Martín Rivero at intermission also scrambled things for San Jose’s defense. The Argentine midfielder spread dangerous passes around the field, including a nice cutting pass against the grain to Brian Mullan that begat the right-wing cross which Sturgis headed home.

“They brought Rivero in, and he did a good job finding the pocket, finding the ball right on top of the back four, turning and then laying balls out wide or trying to play through, which gave them a little bit of joy,” Morrow told MLSsoccer.com. “But we’ve got to be able to recognize things and sort it out in the middle of the game.”