SAN JOSE, Calif. – A decade ago, when the San Jose Earthquakes were at their MLS zenith, club officials rarely fretted when media members discovered some tactical nugget or lineup change from mid-week training sessions. The Quakes knew that even with advance warning, opponents seldom could put together a good enough performance to beat them.
It hasn’t gotten to the point where Frank Yallop, the Quakes’ coach then and now, is signing up for Twitter to send out hints and tips to other clubs coming into Buck Shaw Stadium. But with San Jose topping the table with 11 matches remaining, they’ve forged such a strong identity as a wing-based team that they're are almost issuing a dare to the opposition:
We’re attacking you on the flanks. Feel free to stop us if you can.
WATCH: Wondo puts away Salinas cross
So far, very few teams have been able to do so. San Jose have been shut out only once over their last 21 regular-season matches, and that was a game on three days’ rest in the July heat of Dallas.
The Quakes have 12 multi-goal games in that same span, and lead the league with 45 total goals – although they’ll face an interesting test Saturday, when they host a Seattle side that blanked a patchwork Earthquakes lineup in a US Open Cup quarterfinal on June 26.
The assist totals tell the story of where San Jose is finding their success: Five Quakes have at least five assists this year, and four of those players patrol either sideline – midfielders Marvin Chávez (nine assists) and Shea Salinas (six), All-Star right back Steven Beitashour (six) and captain Ramiro Corrales (five), who has spent time at left back and left midfield.
That quartet has found able and willing targets in the form of Chris Wondolowski, Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart, a trio that’s combined for 33 goals – more than 12 other MLS sides have scored all year.
“We score a lot of goals off crosses, and you can’t get away from that,” Yallop told MLSsoccer.com this week. “We have players that are built to score from that [situation]. Alan, Lenny and Wondo are very good at attacking the ball when it’s wide. ...
“We have an identity now of what we’re trying to do. All the players realize that.”
Only three other teams in MLS thus far have at least three players with five assists. And none of those boast the kind of wing play San Jose have brought to the table; LA are keyed by front-runners Landon Donovan (seven assists) and Robbie Keane (six), while Montreal feature the central midfield pairing of Felipe (eight) and Patrice Bernier (six).
New York might be the closest comparison to the Quakes; with five assists, Roy Miller is the only full-time defender other than Beitashour to reach that total. But Joel Lindpere, who also has five assists, would rather play centrally than on the left flank, which has led to friction with coach Hans Backe.
There’s no such problem for the Quakes, who brought in Chávez and Salinas this offseason to effect results out wide and has reaped the rewards of those deals.
“I think the players we have set us up for that,” Beitashour told MLSsoccer.com of the Quakes’ wing success. “When you have the type of players like Simon [Dawkins], Rafa [Baca] and Sam [Cronin], guys that keep possession for us, it kind of narrows [the opposition] in and helps us on the wing, so we can take that space.”
The question now is whether another team will force the Quakes to move away from their preferred mode of attack by overloading the wide areas of their defensive third. The dilemma, of course: while that tactic may make San Jose’s crossing more difficult, it runs the risk of creating coverage gaps inside the penalty box for someone such as Wondolowski to exploit.
Whatever the case, don’t expect the Quakes to make the first adjustment. Just like during those MLS Cup runs of 2001 and ’03, they’re plenty pleased with how things are going.
“We won’t go away from [going wide], for sure, because if you do, we’re changing how we’ve played all year,” Yallop said. “We won’t do that. We’ll make sure we get it in good areas wide, and we’ll get good service into the box.”
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.