Defense Sends Message in 1-0 Win

March 5, 2017

The San Jose Earthquakes continued their preseason routine against MLS opponents: a 1-0 win over Montreal. Seattle, Vancouver, and Los Angeles were on the receiving end of identical scorelines in 2017.

The Quakes defense allowed a meager five shots with none of them challenging Quakes ‘keeper David Bingham. Montreal also manged just two scoring chances after Anibal Godoy‘s game-winner at the 17’ mark, a far cry from last year’s team that had a reputation for taking its foot off the gas after creating a lead.

The game plan was simple: a defensive press to disrupt any Montreal build-up. It worked. The team intercepted Montreal 24 times, dispossessed Montreal 10 times, and generated 15 unsuccessful first touches. Montreal managed 18 interceptions, nine dispossessions, and 15 unsuccessful first touches.

Captain Chris Wondolowski stressed the need not to be the team like last-season that had trouble closing out games. “We want to have that killer instinct both offensively and defensively . . . we need to be able to put [the game] away.”

2017 could signal a turnaround for San Jose. Unlike last year’s season-opening 1-0 victory in which the Earthquakes were thoroughly outplayed by an aggressive Colorado Rapids squad (the Quakes were out-possessed, out-passed, out-shot, and out-chanced, yet managed a 1-0 win), the 2017 victory was anything but lucky. The Quakes dominated both sides of the ball by racking up 11 scoring chances, putting up 17 shots (four on frame) on Impact ‘keeper Evan Bush, winning 61% of duels, and retaining overall possession 52%-48%. The Quakes also kept 74% of the action in the middle or final third of the pitch, giving Bingham a relatively easy day at the office.

Midfielder Anibal Godoy was clearly the man-of-the-match. Godoy had the lone goal and led the team in chances created (three), touches (82), and fouls won (nine!!!). But other Quakes players played gems.

Nick Lima with one of his five crosses for San Jose versus the Montreal Impact in 2017

Rookie right-back Nick Lima was tasked with covering potential 2016 MLS MVP Iganacio Piatti on Montreal’s left side in which 48% of the Impact’s attack was generated. Lima appeared to be unfazed under the bright lights of Avaya Stadium as Piatti was held to just one shot (off target), zero chances generated, five(!) dispossessions, and an abysmal 47.5% passing accuracy. Lima also led the team in interceptions (five, tied with Godoy), clearances (four), crosses (five), and blocked shots (one) to go along with his three tackles. Lima earned defensive MVP in his first MLS game, and was huge part of the attack. #DamnLima!!

Head Coach Dom Kinnear praised his new starting right-back. “He’s had a very good preseason” while noting that matching up against players like Piatti “is a big challenge for him, and we’re going to keep asking him to step to those challenges.”

Fellow homegrown, midfielder Tommy Thompson also had himself a day. Pairing with Lima on the right hand side, Tommy led the team with two shots on target, created two scoring chances, and was just one shot behind forward Chris Wondolowski in total shots: four.

Center-back Flo Jungwirth played his San Jose debut in the same way as Lima: a potential defensive MVP performance. Jungwirth led Quakes defenders in tackles (four), total touches (67) and passes (56). Flo also had a 76.8% passing accuracy and two clearances. Flo was not afraid to come out and play as a defensive mid, which allowed Godoy to be an extra attacker. He even made a few forays past Godoy. His recovery speed allows him to play higher than a typical center-back, which helped loose Godoy’s attacking skill-set. Don’t be surprised to see Godoy attacking more often this season with Flo behind him.

Other Quakes players showed room for improvement, including the captain. Despite generating five shots, Wondo was unable to challenge Bush on any of them. A 0% shot-conversion rate is a mystery to a man with a 44% career conversion rate.

Costa Rican forward Marco Urena also saw some room for improvement. Urena generated just two shots in 80 minutes of play.

Simon Dawkins in the 2017 season opener versus Montreal Impact

Perhaps the most troubling performance came from second-year designated player and midfielder Simon Dawkins. Dawkins played 70 minutes, managed 26 passes (all other Quakes starting midfielders except Thompson had over 50) on 36 touches (a touch every two minutes), zero interceptions (all other players midfielders and defenders had at least two), three unsuccessful first touches (led team), zero dribbles (his bread and butter last season), a 69% pass accuracy, and one key pass. His substitute Jahmir Hyka gave Dawkins little room for mistakes as he appears ready to take over for Dawkins in the starting XI: 18 touches (a touch every minute), three dribbles, a 90% pass accuracy, two key passes; Hyka was also dispossessed three times, so there is room for improvement. (In preseason, I warned of a potential impending Simon Dawkins demise, and Dawkins did nothing to prove me wrong on opening day.)

After the game, captain Chris Wondolowski was positive with his team. “We executed our game-plan well. Defensively we were very sound and very organized. Offensively I thought we did well and created chances.”

When asked where the team could improve, Dom Kinnear was blunt: “It would have been nice to score a couple more goals. I thought we had some chances to extend our lead, but to start the season off with a win is very positive.”

The biggest take away in Saturday’s victory has to be the defense. In 2017 the Quakes defense has not allowed any MLS opponents to score a goal, shutting out Sporting KC, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Montreal. The only non-shutout goal was due to a Quakes own-goal versus Real Salt Lake. Montreal’s stifled attack proved San Jose’s defense is no fluke. If other teams weren’t paying attention to the defense in preseason, they better start paying attention now. Five different MLS teams have failed to break Bingham and his squad in 2017, and that could be what propels San Jose into the playoffs this year.

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