SANTA CLARA, Calif. – It took eight matches, but fans who have longed to see the San Jose Earthquakes change their method of attacking got their wish Wednesday night. And if you ignore the scoreboard, it looked like it was worth the wait.
The Quakes were shut out by the superb work of Colorado goalkeeper Clint Irwin, but even that outcome couldn’t dim the shine that San Jose’s offense finally brought to Buck Shaw Stadium.
Facing a Rapids team that held them without a single shot on goal in an April 19 draw, San Jose opened up holes in the Colorado defense with crisp one- and two-touch passing, keeping the ball on the ground rather than playing it through the air for a target man to knock down.
It was enough to generate at least four solid scoring chances that, on another night, might have found the back of the net for the Quakes (1-3-4), who had to settle for a scoreless draw vs. Colorado.
“I’ve always said we’ve been able to combine,” Quakes captain Chris Wondolowski said. “We just have to have the confidence and a bit of the space to do it. When we start doing that, it starts opening up the game and opening up chances.”
The performance was keyed by a brand-new pairing in central midfield for the Quakes. Head coach Mark Watson brought back Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi after a three-game absence and gave Khari Stephenson his first league start of the season, replacing Sam Cronin and J.J. Koval.
Stephenson played higher up the pitch while Pierazzi more often stayed at home in front of the back four, and after being overrun in a 3-2 loss to Vancouver on Saturday, the Quakes had 55.6 percent of the possession on Wednesday and created two “big chances,” as defined by Opta, to zero for the Rapids.
“When you don’t win games, you look at different things,” Watson said. “You put those guys in there. They haven’t played together, and it looked like they’d played 50 games together. So it was nice to see.”
It was a redemptive moment for Pierazzi, who told reporters in English that he had been suffering for much of the season from an injury to his left foot that kept him from being able to kick a ball effectively, hampering his performance.
“Now I feel really better, and tonight I tried to play the way I like to play, to keep the ball and distribute it, everything like that,” Pierazzi said. “I think tonight was a good game. It was maybe one of our best games, with the ball and also without the ball, because I think we defended [well]. ....
"We need more time, but I think we are in a good way. Before the game, we thought that we need to be confident, because we have quality on this team. In this locker room, we have only good players. We can play. We have the team to be higher in the standings.”
Stephenson nearly put San Jose up in the 25th minute with a blast from distance that skimmed over the crossbar, and forced Irwin to make a lunging save on his 36th-minute free kick.
“I think we did well at moving the ball today,” Stephenson said. “We didn’t rush it too much. I think we had good possession as well. It was purposeful possession. We slowed it down when we needed to slow it down, went when we needed to go.”
It all leaves the center of the pitch in a bit of a muddle for Watson, who must decide what pairing to use Saturday in a critical home match against FC Dallas – and beyond that as the Quakes prepare for life likely without Wondolowski, a US World Cup hopeful.
“I thought they both deserved a chance,” Watson said of Pierazzi and Stephenson. “So we’ll see. Most spots are up for grabs. If players come in and do well, they deserve to play again. Both of them gave a good account, and we’ll see about Saturday.”
Said Stephenson: “I’ve been here. Mark knows the type of player that I am. He knows the qualities that I have, and if he thinks he needs them in the game, then he’ll put me in. If not, then I won’t be in.”