Having gone winless through their first three MLS matches, the San Jose Earthquakes weren't too particular about how that first victory came. So for Dominic Kinnear's club, after squandering points late in home draws against New England and Chivas USA and a loss at Chicago, protecting what would turn out to be a 3-2 home win against Kansas City last Saturday did not take on added significance.
"I think just getting off the field with a win was the most important thing," said the Earthquakes head coach. "No matter how you win - if you play well or not - it breeds a certain confidence within the group."
San Jose will look to ride that confidence as it makes its first-ever trip to Utah to take on Real Salt Lake at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday night. The Quakes enter the contest looking to establish themselves as one of the early-season contenders in the wide-open Western Conference. But to do so, San Jose is going to have to improve upon a defense that has conceded at least two goals in all four of its matches this season.
"Communication in the back is the most important thing - that, and not giving the ball away in areas where teams can exploit you," said Kinnear. "We gave Kansas City two goals - they got a penalty kick, which was questionable - but other than that, they didn't have too many chances. I was happy with the way we played defensively."
One player who has been consistently solid in the San Jose back four has been right back Craig Waibel, who assisted on the first Earthquakes goal against the Wizards with a well-placed long pass out of the back to Ronald Cerritos.
"Defensively, Craig is very consistent. One of the things he's improved on a lot is his passing out of the back," said Kinnear. "And I think his service to the forwards has been pretty darn good."
The play of the forwards has been one of the strengths of the team in the early season, as both Cerritos (two goals, two assists) and Brian Ching (three goals, two assists) rank among the league leaders in scoring. Once again, they will be serviced by Dwayne De Rosario, who makes his second consecutive start in the center of midfield.
"As always, we want him in there to move the ball around, not to be running with it," said Kinnear. "And we want him to join the attack late. We don't want him standing up with the forwards, so that when he does get the ball, he's facing their goal, which is when he's at his best."
De Rosario, who scored the game-winner against Kansas City, was instrumental in San Jose's ability to successfully kill off the game against the Wizards. By understanding when to push forward and when to go side to side, De Rosario was very effective in helping the Earthquakes manage the clock in the waning moments.
"I thought he did very well showing patience, especially late in the game," said Kinnear. "You want him to have his touches on the ball in the midfield, but not too many. Then when he does get into a dangerous area, he can use more of his touches."
The Quakes will hope to limit the touches of Real Salt Lake's attack-minded trio of Clint Mathis, Jason Kreis and Dipsy Selolwane. Although Real has struggled offensively, netting just two goals in four matches, Kinnear is concerned about their talent.
"Clint Mathis' overall game is very dangerous - he's very good at set pieces, taking guys on, shooting from distance," said Kinnear. "Also, Jason Kreis, you have to limit his space because any time he gets a chance to have a shot on goal, he'll take it."
One player San Jose will not have to deal with is experienced center back Eddie Pope, who will be serving a one-match suspension for a questionable red card he received in Real's 3-0 loss to FC Dallas last Saturday. But unlike Chivas USA, which stocked its expansion team with young, unproven players, Real Salt Lake is loaded with MLS veterans.
"There are growing pains on both sides of it," said Kinnear. "Getting guys like Mathis, Kreis, (Brian) Kamler, Brian Dunseth, guys with at least three or four years under their belt, is a real positive for them."
Danny Kadah is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.