In order to replace Real Salt Lake at the head of the MLS standings, San Jose Earthquakes coach Frank Yallop has delivered a simple message to his troops in the last 48 hours:
Be more like Real Salt Lake.
On the eve of a top-of-the-table clash between the second-place Quakes (9-3-3) and league-leading RSL (10-4-2), Yallop said Friday that his club should look to emulate the ability of Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales and the rest of Jason Kreis’ squad at maintaining control of the ball (Saturday, 9 pm ET, watch LIVE online).
San Jose are coming off another of their patented late comebacks on Wednesday night in Colorado, with goals in the 83rd and 92nd minutes masking the fact that the Rapids more than held their own for the first hour, helped by a couple of great saves from goalkeeper Matt Pickens.
“Colorado are a good possession team and Salt Lake are maybe the best in the league,” Yallop told reporters in a teleconference on Friday. “We need to be better at that. I thought we gave the ball away quite cheaply in the first half against Colorado. In the second half, we got back into the game. I had said at halftime that we’ve got to make sure we don’t just keep giving the ball back, because if you do that against good teams, they’ll punish you.”
The Quakes thoroughly dominated play for the opening 10 minutes Wednesday, but after Pickens turned aside Víctor Bernárdez (third minute) and Simon Dawkins (eighth), the Rapids brought their own pressure to bear. That led to a 1-0 lead in the 18th minute after a sequence of Colorado attacks.
First, a Rapids cross was knocked out by Bernárdez for a corner kick. Then the corner was headed out for a throw-in by backtracking San Jose forward Chris Wondolowski.
Finally, on the third bite of the apple, Colorado right back Hunter Freeman deposited a back-post cross right onto the head of Brian Mullan, who looped the ball back across the face of goal and over the head of San Jose goalkeeper David Bingham.
The Quakes know that RSL – 6-2-0 at home this season despite blowing a two-goal lead en route to a 3-2 loss to LA on Wednesday – can easily duplicate that kind of success.
“One of the things that has made Salt Lake very successful over the years is their patience with the ball and the way they possess it,” said Quakes goalkeeper Jon Busch, who is expected to take over between the posts following a one-game suspension. “They pick teams apart, and we’ve got to be aware of that, obviously.
"We have to be very well-organized defensively tomorrow and when we do get the ball, we’ve got to do the same; we’ve got to possess the ball and be patient with it. You don’t want to be constantly turning it over to them and giving them opportunities, time after time.”
Of course, one way to regain possession is to cough up the first goal. A team with the lead naturally wants to make sure all angles to the goal are closed, rather than overextending to fight for a 50-50 ball in the middle third.
San Jose have gotten away with conceding the first goal in each of their last five matches, going 2-1-2 in that stretch thanks largely to their ability to pump home goals in the closing minutes. They have scored 12 times in the 76th minute or later, with eight of those goals coming since May 13.
“It’s getting freaky, isn’t it?” Busch said of the comeback victories. “Once or twice, you’re like, ‘OK.’ Now it’s like, ‘What’s going on?’”
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.