When the Sounders travel to northern California to take on the Earthquakes on Saturday (7:30 p.m. PT; Q13 FOX, Univision, KIRO Radio 97.3 FM, El Rey 1360AM), Seattle will be searching for its first win in San Jose in nearly seven years. With a 7-10-4 all-time series against the ‘Quakes, they are one of only a handful of teams the Sounders have a losing record against.
So how do you beat San Jose? How do you waltz into Avaya Stadium and come away with three points against a Western Conference foe that has caused numerous headaches for years?
You attack them right in the heart: the gap between their two center backs.
Regular starter Victor Bernardez is suspended for Saturday’s match after being sent off against New York City FC last week. Head coach Dominic Kinnear has started the same back four of Shaun Francis, Florian Jungwirth, Bernardez and Nick Lima in each of the first four matches. Harold Cummings recently underwent ankle surgery and Marvell Wynne is recovering from heart surgery, so that likely leaves 30-year-old Argentine Andres Imperiale, who has not played yet this season, to step in.
Here’s how the ‘Quakes will likely line up on Saturday:
The space in between and just above Jungwirth and Imperiale (or Kofi Sarkodie, or whomever ultimately fills in for Bernardez) will determine whether the Sounders can leave San Jose with three points. You might argue that’s the most important zone for every team in every match, and while there’s some merit to that, it carries significantly more weight when you look at just how far apart San Jose’s center backs play and how disjointed they are from central midfield.
Operating in a traditional 4-4-2, the ‘Quakes lack a true No. 6. Alashe plays the part more than the attack-minded Godoy, but there’s no one hanging back as a defensive stopgap to plug up the area in front of the 18-yard-box like an Osvaldo Alonso, Dax McCarty or Michael Bradley. That leaves the two center backs with vertical responsibilities in addition to their normal horizontal ones, something that becomes all the more difficult to defend when teams like to attack on the wings like the Sounders do.
Let’s take a look at NYCFC’s first goal against the Earthquakes last week. The ball starts wide left with Ronald Mataritta, who picks out David Villa on top of the box. Notice how much room Villa and teammate Maxi Moralez have between Bernardez and Jungwirth:
When the ball reaches Villa, he has yards of space to employ while Bernardez tries to backtrack and Jungwirth covers Moralez.
This allows Villa to deftly spring Jack Harrison in on goal for the equalizer.
Let’s take a look at NYCFC’s game-winning goal now. After a bad giveaway, San Jose is scrambling defensively. The ball finds Rodney Wallace, who looks up and sees Villa, who has again situated himself in between Bernardez and Jungwirth. Villa recognizes the space and even visually calls for the ball with his arms as he takes a step in Wallace’s direction.
Villa takes a look to his left and sees Mataritta already in full sprint on goal so when Wallace slides the ball into Villa’s feet, all an unmarked Villa has to do is flash that bit of skill again and flick Mataritta through.
From there, Mataritta plays a one-timed ball laterally across the box for an easy tap-in finish from Tommy McNamara to send the home team to three points.
So where do the Sounders factor into all of this? This is Clint Dempsey’s dream scenario.
The United States’ second all-time leading scorer loves to park himself as a target man with his back to goal as much as he loves running at defenders. If there is space there, Dempsey will find it. If there’s none, he’ll create it. He is in incredible form at the moment with 11 goals in his last nine matches for club and country dating back to last season, and his sharpness is getting better by the day as he works back to match fitness following the six months he missed with an irregular heartbeat.
Let’s take a look at Seattle’s match against Atlanta last week. Dempsey entered as a second-half substitute after resting in the first half because of recent international duty. He made an immediate impact when he stepped onto the pitch because of reasons like this:
Dempsey ends up between left center back Michael Parkhurst and left back Greg Garza on this particular play, but notice where Dempsey starts. He is retreating with his back to goal near the center of the box as Cristian Roldan recycles a clearance. Dempsey calmly holds the ball up, allows Roldan to create space in behind and cheekily plays Roldan in for a dangerous cross.
Here’s another example of Dempsey patrolling the penalty arc, this time against the New York Red Bulls in the Sounders’ home opener on March 19. Jordan Morris has the ball on the right side and finds Dempsey, who immediately draws the attention of the two center defenders. They close on him quickly, so Dempsey, much like Villa did, distributes it quickly to a teammate in open space. Dempsey this time opts to send it slightly backward to an onrushing Joevin Jones, who unleashes a shot that is deflected into the net by Harry Shipp for the Sounders’ third goal in a 3-1 win.
Part of what makes the Sounders so lethal offensively is the depth that Morris provides. Earlier in the Red Bulls match, Dempsey has the ball on the right side. The entire defense is focused on him and starts to collapse around him, so he plays a simple pass to a wide open Shipp in the penalty arc. Shipp makes one move before slotting it back to Nicolas Lodeiro, whose left-footed effort struck the woodwork.
The reason why Shipp had so much room is because of how high Morris was. He’s forcing the two Red Bulls center backs to stay honest, and it gives Shipp 10 yards of space to work with at the top of the box.
Even when Dempsey is not the man himself in that gap in the back line, his presence on the ball allows for traditional second-strikers like Morris to occupy that space with even greater space or to run in behind the way NYCFC’s Harrison and Mataritta did. Morris’ depth will also come into play on through balls over the top of the defense. Morris is exceptionally quick and near-impossible to stop when he gets a full head of steam.
In the Earthquakes’ 3-2 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps in Week 2, San Jose fell behind less than two minutes in because of an opportunistic play by Erik Hurtado. The Whitecaps forward forced Bernardez into an awkward clearance, and when the ball was recycled, Hurtado had planted himself in between Bernardez and Jungwirth and outran the two center backs. Morris should expect to have all kinds of room to check back to the ball or run horizontally across the line before turning and going Route 1 over the top.
The Sounders had an eye-popping 29 crosses against Atlanta last Friday and 18 against the Montreal Impact in Week 2, so don’t expect Seattle to completely flip their script on Saturday. But if the Sounders can work the ball wide to Jones, who is perhaps the best attacking left back in MLS, and he can pick out Dempsey or Morris in the center of the 18-yard-box, there will be room aplenty to exploit, perhaps even enough to fly back to Seattle with three points.