And I’m going to start by introducing you to a baseball executive.
See that guy on the right?
That’s Billy Beane, the visionary Oakland Athletics front-office executive that Brad Pitt played in the movie Moneyball. It’s not clear how much influence Beane has as a consultant with the Earthquakes, but here’s why I bring it up: Major League Soccer has a salary cap, and in order to fit big-name stars and top-league foreign transfers under it, MLS created something called the Designated Player rule. Each team can have up to three, and teams like New York and Los Angeles did exactly that, pushing their 2012 payrolls to $14.8 and $10.8 million dollars, respectively.
Last year, little old San Jose, with the 10th largest payroll in the 19-team league at $3.4 million, won the league’s Supporters Shield, awarded to the team with the best regular-season record. And they did it without signing a single Designated Player.
So if you want to understand the team that’s coming to Blackbaud Stadium on tonight for a Third Round showdown in the U.S. Open Cup, keep this in mind: Whether it’s Beane , or common sense, or simple frugality, the Earthquakes are built to be tough, not pretty. Yes, Chris Wondolowski is the league’s reigning MVP and scoring champion, but remember: Wondo never gets major-market respect because he’s a former reserve player in Houston who scrapped his way to soccer stardom.
And as if in tribute to Moneyball, when Wonderful Wondo finally got his well-deserved payday in the offseason (he’s the Earthquakes only Designated Player this season, but still only the league’s 12th highest-paid player), his scoring form plummeted. Last season Wondolowski scored 27 times in MLS. This season he’s scored just five times in 14 matches, despite playing every minute. And the magic of 2012, when the Quakes seemed to find their winning goals in the waning seconds of every match? It’s pretty much moved on.
But don’t think that means this team (3-5-6, with a -7 goal differential) a weak sister. It makes the blue-collar Quakes tough, dangerous and — potentially, anyway — motivated.
Where are the goals?
The 2012 and 2013 Earthquakes’ rosters don’t look all that different. Despite some flirtation with change, their style of play hasn’t changed that much, either. They put four big guys across the back line, deploy a bunch of smart, quick ball-handlers in the midfield, and typically pair Wondolowski with a physical center forward or two up top. Wondo leads the team in goals (5), shots (56), SOG (21) and assists 3 — not great numbers for him, but in the mix among the best in the league.
The problem is, the rest of the offense is sputtering. Last year the “Bash Brothers” pairing of forwards Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon both scored in double figures. They’ve combined for zero goals in 2013.
One reason for this is probably Marvin Chavez, the attacking midfielder from Honduras who contributed 13 assists last season. Chavez missed the first seven matches with a knee injury and has since missed an 8th with a suspension.
San Jose’s only bright spot in the attack — other than Wondo — has been rookie forward Adam Jahn, with four scores.
Hurt and Honduran
San Jose has done a great job of scouting Honduran players. Chavez and massive centerback Victor Bernardez proved themselves last year, and 31-year-old newcomer Walter Martinez has impressed as an attacking midfielder in spot duty. But they’ll get no help from either Chavez or Bernardez tonight. Both are listed as having departed for international duty on Monday.
While Bernardez typically anchors the Quakes back line, he’s not the only defender who is expected to be unavailable to Yallop tonight. Ty Harden has a groin injury. Tommy Muller has been suffering back spasms. Canadian Nana Attakora has a concussion. The result is a defense that could have some weaknesses.
One of their other breakout stars of 2012 — right back and midfielder Stephen Beitashour — began the season hurt, and has yet to return to last year’s form, although he has started the team’s last seven matches.
A year ago, Wondolowski, Gordon, Beitashour and left back Justin Morrow were all in the USMNT picture. This year, with the team struggling, each of these men is available for the Open Cup.
The first question everyone will ask is Wondo’s status. He’s a fit, fierce competitor who will likely want to participate, but he’s also an iron man who hasn’t missed a minute in 2013. So will Coach Frank Yallop start his star on the road in the Open Cup?
Conventional wisdom says no. Last year’s Third Round opponent, the New York Red Bulls, left star forward Thierry Henry in the Big Apple and still won 3-0 at Blackbaud.
Then again, the Red Bulls were in the hunt last May, and while hope springs eternal, San Jose has its work cut out for it in the Western Conference. What if the club decides that the easiest return route to a CONCACAF Champions League berth would be through the Open Cup?
“If Wondolowski plays, you gotta worry about him, but I don’t foresee him starting,” Battery Coach Mike Anhaeuser said Friday. “I’m sure you’ve got to worry about minutes, travel and everything else, just like I did last week (on the road at Houston and Portland). But at the same time, I think they want to move on, so we might see him. And we’ll get the lineup sheet tomorrow, and (if he’s on there) we’ll prepare for him. You (can’t really) prepare. You’ve just got to be aware.”
Quakes to watch
Whatever Wondo’s status, one player I expect the Quakes to feature tonight is Lenhart. He’s a big (6-1, 190), physical player with distinctive blonde hair, so he’s usually hard to miss. San Jose fans love him and just about nobody else in North American soccer does — although I’ll give him credit for driving his opponents out of their minds, even if it doesn’t make for pretty soccer.
Lenhart’s game is pretty easily described. He camps out in the area, irritates the shit out of defenders with bumps, pulls, tugs, holds, pinches and banter, and then gets up for headers. He can snap them toward the frame with pace, but last year he was also adept at heading back to teammates and catching them in stride on runs into danger. He’s got the strength to hold people off, plus functional speed and ball skills.
If Yallop is thinking that he can rest most of his regulars, slug it out at Blackbaud Stadium and advance without putting much mileage on his main guys, then this match has Lenhart written all over it. He missed three matches earlier this month — one via injury, two via league suspension — and though he’s the second-highest paid man on the roster, Yallop has been content to use him as a sub since his return.
If Wondo sits, look for young MLS journeyman forward Mike Fucito — a Harvard alum who has played for Seattle, Montreal and Portland — to get the start. While I don’t expect to see Alan Gordon, rookie Jahn could easily get a start. Another possibility is comeback player Marcus Tracy.
Anhaeuser said the midfield is the key to the Earthquakes. If they line up in a 4-4-2 without Wondo, we could see little-used Sam Garza and newcomer Martinez out wide, with Sam Cronin in a holding role and Mexican Rafael Baca scrapping for second balls in the middle of the field. Shea Salinas is a starter and a domestic player, but whether he’ll play is, again, a function of how Yallop views the Cup and the threat posed by the Battery.
On defense, I’ll be looking for veteran right back Dan Gargan and possibly Beitashour, with Jason Hernandez and Morrow also in the mix. Ageless wonder Ramiro Corrales has played sparingly this year, and could be a factor at left back or midfield. Their starting keeper is 36-yar-old Jon Busch, but we might well get their “keeper of the future,” 23-year-old David Bingham.
On the Battery side
San Jose has played three MLS matches since May 11. The Battery has played five matches in all competitions over the same stretch, and will be playing for the third time in seven days when they take the pitch tonight.
Despite the heavier work load, the Battery actually enter this match on a slight upswing in terms of personnel. Quinton Griffith, their dynamic outside mid, remains sidelined with a groin injury, but Canadian Ben Fisk is back, and Cuban midfielder Maikel Chang (hamstring) could be one of the players who suits up tonight. League suspensions don’t matter, so Amadou Sanyang is available for tonight’s match — if Anhaeuser chooses to include him in the five foreign players he’s allowed.
I’m anticipating Odisnel Cooper in goal, with a rested John Wilson at left back. The logical choices at centerback are Colin Falvey and Cody Ellison. Mark Wiltse is usually Anhaeuser’s first choice at right back, but he’s also played Taylor Mueller and (most recently) Shawn Ferguson at the position.
In midfield, Nicki Paterson has been a highly effective player in the Open Cup, and Jose Cuevas is a Californian who has been rounding his way back into shape. Jarad van Schaik has been a rock, playing either outside on the left or dropping back defensively.
After that it gets tricky. Jamaican Dane Kelly is expected to start at forward, which leaves two foreign slots and two midfield spots to fill. Since Anhaeuser will likely keep Fisk reserved as a sub, that means there’s only one foreign midfielder available to start between Sanyang, Michael Azira and Emmanuel Adjetey. My guess is the Battery will start Zach Prince on the right side, with either Azira or Sanyang filling out the card.
Heviel Cordoves has been a reliable and effective contributor off the bench, and gives Anhaeuser the option of trading like-for-like with Yallop if the Quakes decide to play Bash Brothers at Blackbaud. Austin Savage made the most of his first Open Cup start at Portland. Ferguson, a big defender, has been a surprisingly effective offensive threat lately.
Bottom line: The Battery will start a lineup that includes multiple MLS-quality players. They’ve won their last two matches against MLS teams, and they know their capable of competing at this level. Whatever happens, happens. But this is a tough draw for any West Coast team.
The scouting report
“I told the guys, watching (San Jose) play, they’re like us,” Anhaeuser said Friday. “They’re a hard-working team. We also know they’re big in the air. No matter who they play. Gordon. Lenhart. Jahn. They like to play the ball in the air and get knockdowns. Good thing Cody’s back for us. He should be able to compensate that a little bit. And Colin’s good in the air, and of course we’ll have John back in there because we rested him Saturday night. We just gotta be ready for it, because that’s how they play, and they get those knockdowns.
“But the key is the midfield. It’s the second ball. When it pops out, they have the quality guys in the midfield that can come up and hit that shot from maybe 18, 20 yards. But nothing against them. You’ve seen us. That’s how we are (too).
“Last year it seemed that everything that popped out or landed went in the goal (for them). I think they probably won eight games (in the final minutes). And we didn’t talk about that yet, but I will, because I want to make sure we start right. At half time, we’re going to let (our players) know (to watch for the late surge, because) even against Dallas (this weekend, San Jose was) pummeling them in the last 10 minutes. They have the guys they can bring in off the bench, they have the power, and then they never quit… Dallas (held them off late with ) two or three good saves… and that’s what we need. We’ve got Cooper, who has played, and you saw him make big saves against MLS teams before. We’re going to need that out of our goalkeeper.
“It’s just like the Challenge Cup. We like playing against the best team. If you play against the best team, you see where you are as a player. If they put their best team out there, we’ve got to get it done. If they put more of their reserves out there, we got to get it done even better and keep them under pressure and take it to them.
“No matter who’s on the field, we’re going to play. We’re here to win. You don’t move on with a tie.”
TOP IMAGE: A feisty exchange between Steven Lenhart and the Portland Timbers at JELD-WEN Field. Expect plenty of this.