The Seattle Sounders face off against the San Jose Earthquakes on Friday (6:00 p.m. PT; ESPN, ESPN Deportes, TSN, 950 KJR AM) in Group B’s opening fixture of the MLS is Back Tournament. Here are three matchups to watch, presented by Toyota.
Xavier Arreaga vs. San Jose’s Defensive System
San Jose’s dramatic turnaround from bottom dwellers in 2018 to postseason contenders in 2019 was spurred largely by head coach Matias Almeyda’s enigmatic man-marking defensive system. Rather than sitting in organized blocks or limiting key spaces on the pitch, the Earthquakes harry and harass their individual counterparts all over the pitch. Now that the novelty has worn off a bit – the Sounders have ample match footage to pour over in preparation – the Rave Green will be ready to exploit flaws in San Jose’s defensive system.
Namely, nine of the Earthquakes’ ten outfield players are responsible for man-marking a specific opponent, with one center back free to clean up any danger. On the flip side, this leaves one center back on the Sounders to progress possession and carry the ball out of the back. Enter Xavier Arreaga, whose prowess on the ball and ability to break lines with his incisive passing will be the key to unlocking San Jose. When he carries the ball out of the back, committing a defender in midfield, it should lead to a domino effect as players rotate to provide cover, leaving Rave Green attackers open in space.
Raúl Ruidíaz vs. Oswaldo Alanís
Everybody knows Raúl Ruidíaz is an assassin in the box.
But if you listen to Head Coach Brian Schmetzer when he talks about the Peruvian poacher, one of the traits he often praises his Ruidíaz’s relentless work rate. Yes, he’s one of the most prolific scorers in Major League Soccer, but he also leads the press and defends from the front.
Alanís, a veteran of Liga MX, is classy on the ball for a center back and is capable of contributing in the attack, as he posted a goal and an assist from San Jose’s first two matches of the 2020 MLS regular season. If Ruidíaz can shadow him into poor angles and press him into mistakes, it will lead to plenty of transition opportunities for the likes of Nicolás Lodeiro and Jordan Morris. While Alanís is an excellent ball-playing center back, he was also at the heart of an Earthquakes back line that shipped seven goals from their first two fixtures this year. Look for Ruidíaz to have a field day in Seattle’s opening match of the MLS is Back Tournament.
Jordan Morris vs. Tommy Thompson
Thompson, a tricky winger converted into an outside back, has been one of the best success stories of Almeyda’s tenure. Once heralded as a high-flying attacking player, he’s remade himself as a gritty, technical defender capable of putting in a solid two-way shift. Jordan Morris’ career in Seattle shares some parallels to his Earthquakes counterpart. Bursting onto the scene as a pacey No. 9, he’s added some 1-v-1 flair, defensive acumen and high-volume chance creation to his game out on the wing.
While Thompson made some impressive strides last season, Morris is poised to win the battle between the two Homegrowns. If he can pin Thompson back, it will leave San Jose’s danger man, Cristian Espinoza, isolated on the wing. On the attacking side, the Mercer Island native boasts the skill, pace and service to burst past Thompson and pick out Ruidíaz’s clever runs inside the box.