Back to the clean sheet: Mark Watson emphasizing defense on rebounding San Jose Earthquakes

San Jose Earthquakes interim coach Mark Watson insists his team hasn’t fundamentally changed its tactics in the wake of his taking over from former boss Frank Yallop.

But if the Quakes – winners of their last three league matches – are going to continue their climb back into the Western Conference playoff race at the expense of theVancouver Whitecaps on Saturday (7:30 pm ET, watch FREE on MLS Stream of the Week), they’re likely to do it building upon the same foundation they used to such great effect in 2010: the clean sheet.

Last season, San Jose’s success was predicated most often on overwhelming opponents, as the club netted a franchise-record 72 goals. But with only 25 tallies in 23 matches this year, the Quakes don’t have the luxury to give up even one goal if they want to continue this recent run.

During the winning streak, San Jose have posted two of their three shutouts on the season. That evokes memories of 2010, when San Jose held opponents scoreless for a team-record 13 times in marching to the conference championship.

The improvement is not by mere circumstance. Since taking over in early June, Watson has made “being tough to break down” his top bullet point in training.

“It’s not something you work on for one day and hope to improve significantly,” Watson told MLSsoccer.com this week. “We work on it every day.”

It hasn’t hurt that Victor Bernardez, a mainstay at center back, has been playing some of his most assured soccer of the season since coming back from two games on suspension – a return to form that coincides precisely with the victories. And San Jose have been able to quickly bring veterans Jordan Stewart and Clarence Goodson up to speed, adding both to their starting XI during the course of the winning streak.

“I think we’re all experienced enough to know how to play each position,” Stewart said. “Me and Clay [Goodson] playing next to each other, we like to talk and we like to keep high lines, and I think that goes for the rest of the team as well.”

Last weekend, the Quakes limited Chivas USA to just one shot on goal in a 2-0 San Jose victory. In fact, the Goats’ attack was so thoroughly contained that they didn’t have a single shot – on target or off – after the 35th minute.

Nevertheless, Goodson was in wait-and-see mode after that victory, knowing that Chivas are one of only three teams in the league this season with fewer goals than the Quakes have. To the US international, San Jose’s match against the Whitecaps – on the road, against one of the teams the Quakes likely have to pass to make the Cup field – provides a truer measuring stick.

“We certainly can’t be satisfied or think we’re where we need to be,” Goodson said. “Because we’re definitely not.”