Robert Jonas, Managing Editor of SB Nation's San Jose Earthquakes blog Quake, Rattle and Goal, joined me to talk about tomorrow's match between the Philadelphia Union and Earthquakes.
Scott Kessler: Last time the Union met the Earthquakes, the game ended with late disappointment for the Union. What have the Earthquakes done since?
Robert Jonas: Last season, the Earthquakes made a living on dramatic results and rode that wave of hard fought wins to the postseason. Luck certainly had a part in some of those wins, with the Alvarez goal to beat the Union last year at PPL Park exhibit "A" of that. However, you can make your own luck through hard work, and the Quakes really mastered that in earning the eighth position in the playoff table. This season is a completely different story as the effort and urgency of last season is not present in the play of the Quakes. Going into this weekend's game, the Quakes have been outplayed for three straight games. Philly will have to hope that malaise from San Jose continues. What interests me about the Union so far this season is that while they are not scoring all that many goals, they are statistically the most stingy team in MLS on defense. What one player has been the difference maker in making Philly so tough to score upon?
Scott: If I'm forced to choose just one player, it has to be Faryd Mondragon. He's pulling the strings in the back. While he hasn't been tested much in the back, he's most certainly helped to improve his teammates around him. Of the back four Carlos Valdes has played the best. His one problem has been his tendency to make poor choices with tackles. In non-MLS regular season games he's been sent off twice.
Robert: I've been very impressed with Valdes in the games I've seen him play this season. His play seems to have rejuvenated Califf to a huge degree, as they appear to complement each other very well as a central defensive duo.
Scott: Califf seems to have found his Fountain of Youth in Valdes and Mondragon. He doesn't seem to have the weight of the world on his shoulders anymore.
Robert: It really shows in his energy level; he doesn't seem to be trying to do too much defensively -- he's showing more trust in his teammates. Unfortunately, that trust among players does not seem to evident from the Quakes in the last three weeks. It really shows in his energy level; he doesn't seem to be trying to do too much defensively -- he's showing more trust in his teammates. Unfortunately, that trust among players does not seem to be evident from the Quakes in the last three weeks.
Scott: From what I've seen, read and heard, it appears that not only is the midfield disappointing, the overall chemistry of the team is very low currently. Bobby Convey in particular appears to have taken a huge step back from last year.
Robert: The Quakes are trying too hard at times to play a "possession style" this season, and Convey is often left unused on the wings as the ball is turned over in the center of the pitch. When the Quakes go more to a direct and counterattacking style, Convey and left back Ramiro Corrales prove to be a potent pair on the left side. Working together to being the ball up the side while covering each other on overlapping runs and forays into the box, the Quakes left side pair are underutilized at times when the Quakes play possession. You can read the frustration on Convey's face during games when that happens, but he needs to get beyond that in show more willingness to roam centrally in support. Speaking of slow starts to the season, what is the deal with Seba Le Toux? I spoke to Taylor Twellman earlier this week and he said Le Toux was probably still feeling the effects of a nagging ankle injury. Does that explain why last year's Union MVP is off to such a slow start?
Scott: The ankle injury can no longer be an argument. If it was a high ankle sprain he wouldn't have played every game this season. It's up to his vastly changed role in the Union's offensive scheme. Carlos Ruiz is now the focal point of the offense because he is the lone striker, which puts him in position to get the ball a lot. Le Toux always roamed a lot last season, but he was essentially the second striker, with two supporting attacking midfielders. Now the Union switch in-and-out of 433, 4231 and 442 a whole lot. There hasn't been a lot of width play from the Union and it's because of the personnel that Peter Nowak has chosen to utilize so far this season. In addition to his changed role, Le Toux hasn't meshed well with the midfield or Ruiz so far.
Robert: That withdrawn forward role Le Toux played last season did not prevent him from posting career numbers, and I won't be surprised to see him rebound to that level over the course of the season. But, I'm glad you brought up Ruiz. He is the player that all supporters love to hate, unless he plays for your team. San Jose goalkeeper Jon Busch included Ruiz in his list of the toughest strikers he has faced in his career. Just how much does he have left in the tank, and how well received is his "style" welcomed by his teammates?
Scott: It's not so much of a withdrawn forward as "make up for the Union's lack of offensive threat on the right side this year." Ruiz hasn't gotten a fully welcome reception from the fans yet. He still has a way to go to win them over. He's scored two goals in five games, but his work rate isn't where it needs to be. Every player in Nowak's system needs to play some sort of defense and he just doesn't do it. Plus he's taking valuable playing time away from Danny Mwanga. If Ruiz was scorching Earth, I wouldn't care so much about Mwanga's place on the team, but Ruiz has yet to warrant the need to keep a former first overall pick from picking up where he left off in 2010.
Robert: I have to ask more about last year's Union rookie of the year Danny Mwanga - it seems the presence of Ruiz has dropped the former #1 pick to afterthought status for Nowak. Do you find this a worrying sign that the second year striker is not progressing as quickly as he should, or is Nowak bringing him along slowly and limiting his minutes by choice.
Scott: It's quite a confusing situation. Last season Nowak had to choose between Alejandro Moreno, Mwanga and Le Toux and managed to get all three a ton of time at all times of the season. Now he has Ruiz and for some reason Ruiz has changed all of that. There has been some reasonable analysis of Ruiz's impact on this team being detrimental, while the loss of Moreno has seemingly been much greater than anyone could have imagined. It wasn't until game five of the season that Ruiz showed any want to play with his back to the goal and allow play to flow through him. Moreno was pretty good at that last year.
Robert: Ale Moreno looked good for Chivas USA against the Quakes last weekend. I am sure the Union miss his more physical presence over what they see from Ruiz.
Scott: Mwanga in his short spurts has shown his promise, but he isn't the same player - so far - that he was last season. Part of that is because of his lack of consistent playing time.
Robert: Well, he is still young -- and at least he has the revived Reserve League to keep him busy!
Scott: He didn't play in the first game of the reserve league. Don't understand why Nowak is using him like he currently is.
Robert: Interesting... One positive note to the Quakes season has been how coach Yallop has used the Reserve League to keep fringe starters fresh and sharp. In fact, some of those players look to be in line to play against the Union this weekend. Possible changes to the starting XI include the backline duo of Ike Opara and Bobby Burling as well as midfielders Brad Ring and Anthony Ampaipitakwong. While unlikely all four would be a part of a Yallop wholesale remodeling, changes will be made and all of those guys are clearly in the mix.
As for the role of striker, look for Lenhart to get some significant playing time. I know he gave the Union -- and especially Danny Califf -- fits last season. He is still rounding into shape given a lengthy delay to debut with the Quakes, but he has looked progressively impressive over the last two weeks of training.
Scott: PhiladelphiaUnion.com had a story about that exact match up today. What about Wondo? He's had just as many problems as Le Toux this season.
Robert: Interestingly enough, Wondo has managed to score 3 goals already this season despite the heavy marking opposing defenses have used to take him out of games. He is earning roughly the same number of scoring opportunities per game this year as compared to his Golden Boot winning 2010 campaign, but his efficiency is way down. While Wondo won't call it a case or pressing, he does appear to be carrying the weight of expectations this season and is still adjusting to the pressure.
Of course, if his teammates would raise their intensity to his level, maybe he wouldn't have to work so hard himself and he could get back to letting the scoring chances happen more naturally. Wondo is a finisher, not a creator. He needs the players around him to provide service to get him into dangerous places in front of goal.
Scott: What he needs is a Le Toux.
Scott: What's your prediction for the game?
Robert: Unfortunately, with Yallop promising so many changes the line-up following the past two weeks of complacency, I fear that while the new additions may provide more energy to the collection, the lack of familiarity with one another will lead to a more disjointed style of play. I won't be surprised to see the Quakes play more of a defensive set-up with hopes of getting a low scoring draw or smash-and-grab win. Just your typical MLS away game strategy. Let's call it 1-0, first team to score wins!
Scott: I'm going to go with a much less scientific reason behind my 1-0 choice: the Union. Why? The Union are currently 4-0-2 when I go to a home game at PPL Park. Pretty good points-per-game ratio of 2.33
Robert: That's as good a method of prediction as I've ever heard. I'm afraid you will be proved right.
Scott: The Union were a second away from continuing an almost five game scoreless streak at home, until Seattle scored two weeks ago.
Robert: Speaking of, a quick look at the numbers reveals just 4 goals scored in 5 games. The defense might be solid, but as Seattle showed in their last game, keep the score close and maybe you can steal points. Are the Union playing with fire so to speak by failing to create and convert more in the offensive third, and does that concern you that maybe their record is inflated because of that failure to put games away?
Scott: Sounder at Heart asked almost that exact question last week. They are and there's not much that can change that until the offense finally picks up.
Robert: I suppose their coming back to earn the draw is as good an explanation as you or I could ever come up with. Just maybe the Quakes can show enough defensively to keep it close -- like they did at PPL Park in 2010 -- and turn a page of some of their early season disappointment. I know I am concerned, as are many Quakes fans, but watching what Seattle did to earn the late draw brings some hope.
Scott: The hope from the Union's point-of-view is that the offense can find itself, much like the Red Bulls offense has since their defeat at PPL Park. At some point the defense isn't going to be enough for the Union to keep games close or to take points.
Robert: One thing Quakes fans can't be happy to hear is that Brian Carroll might be back to health and available to play this weekend. He has provided such a great veteran presence to the team this season and definitely qualifies in my mind as the most "anonymous" player on the team. What makes Carroll so effective for Peter Nowak's side and should he be getting more attention for his efforts this season?
Scott: He's distributed very well from his central role and with second-year player Amobi Okugo showing he can start, it appears that Stefani Miglioranzi may leave the starting XI. That's nothing but a plus. Youth infusion and the never ending inconsistency and disappointing play of Migz will be over - hopefully. He'd be fine as the midfield substitution option off the bench after Roger Torres, but he's no longer a quality or average starting midfielder. Too many passes that are two steps ahead or behind. Too many poor tackles. Too many poor decisions. Too many times he's too slow on a play.
Robert: I've always been a fan of Carroll and have to believe it was not accident that Nowak brought him to Philly.
Scott: Not at all. Got him very cheap too, only cost a second rounder.
Robert: Yallop operates the same way here in San Jose -- Lenhart for a draft pick (turned out to be Justin Meram) allows him a proven commodity over a player with the dreaded "potential" label on his resume. Plus, Carroll really provides strength to the Union spine -- great pick-up. The Quakes are likely to lose this weekend, but if they can show any improvement in their effort, not all will be lost. Any kind of result will be viewed as a bonus to those here in San Jose.
Enjoy the game this weekend, and I look forward to reading all the wrap up at The Brotherly Game.
Scott: Same to you over at Quake, Rattle and Goal.