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Chivas USA vs. San Jose Earthquakes (7/6/11): Three Questions

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Time again for our feature Three Questions. This week, we have Robert Jonas of the San Jose Earthquakes blog Quake, Rattle and Goal! to answer some questions about the Quakes. Below his answers, you will find his questions about Chivas and the answers provided. Let's get San Jose's side of the story.

The Goat Parade asks Quake, Rattle and Goal!:

1. San Jose started the season off with hopes of building upon their playoff success last season before hitting a slump in April. They have been putting together a good run of form the last two months, however. What changes took place to help the Earthquakes get back to winning ways?

Key to the Earthquakes resurgence was a shake-up in the starting XI that followed the 2-1 home loss to Chivas USA on April 23. After starting the season with a 4-3-3 formation that produced improvement in ball possession statistics, head coach Frank Yallop returned to his tried and true 4-4-2 formation that focused on a defense-first strategy. The inclusion of new striking acquisition Steven Lenhart as the starting target forward for the largely ineffective Ryan Johnson further served to decrease the pressure on the Quakes back four. Opponents caught deep in the offensive third were now more susceptible to counterattacks given Lenhart’s ability to collect and distribute long clearances to fellow forwards Chris Wondolowski and Simon Dawkins.

 

In the 12 matches that followed that disappointing loss to the Goats, the Earthquakes have lost just twice, both on the road, on 1-0 results. The defense has settled into a cohesive unit that now has hard-nosed defensive midfielder Brad Ring providing support centrally. What worked in 2010 was a defend at all costs approach that turned to Wondolowski to provide the offense. In 2011, Wondo has he help of Lenhart, Dawkins, and Khari Stephenson, the team has shaken off their early season blues to earn the fourth best scoring average in MLS. Gone is the RSL-styled strategy introduced for the season opener — back is the opportunistic offensive team that is hovering just inside of a postseason berth.

2. After Chris Wondolowski got called up to the USMNT for the Gold Cup, it seemed San Jose would have problems scoring, as the offense has run through him, sometimes exclusively, for the past year and a half. But while he was away, Steven Lenhart really emerged as a goalscorer and pest to opposing defenses. How will Wondo and Lenhart play together? Can they be productive on the field at the same time?

Prior to joining the USMNT, Wondolowski and Lenhart started together up top during a four match unbeaten streak. The histrionics of Lenhart aside, the duo were establishing a good understanding of when and where to move both on and off the ball. Wondo’s reputation as a clinical finisher is well deserved, and he has learned to use the time providing by Lenhart’s post-up play to get into dangerous areas within the defense to find his shots on goal. Before Lenhart, Wondo was finding scoring opportunities, but often with tight defensive markers limiting his space. With Lenhart to attract away defenders, Wondo is finding just enough time and space to be more effective in front of goal.

While Wondo was away, Lenhart justified the attention defenses were paying him, as he has scored five goals in his last five appearances. That production will necessitate that opposing center backs man-up to the physical forward, or risk leaving him open to finish shots like his header last weekend against the Red Bulls. However, mark him too tightly, and Wondo gets to run into the area at will. Even worse for opposing defenses, focus too much on the Quakes striking duo and leave space for Stephenson or Dawkins to exploit open space in the attacking third. Given the Quakes lack of a true playmaker — although Dawkins is as close to that role as they have — finding scoring opportunities is all about creating time and space for crosses and long deliveries.

3. Are the Earthquakes looking to make changes in the upcoming transfer window? Ideally what positions or types of players do they need to obtain?

The Quakes modus operandi the past three summers is to splash some cash on an impact player or two that can contribute offensively. Always a hallmark of Yallop-coached teams that they build the roster from the back, the summer months usually find the team looking good defensively, but somewhat starved in attack. Goal scoring threats such as Arturo Alvarez, Darren Huckerby, Scott Sealy, Khari Stephenson, and Geovanni — the first Designated Player in franchise history — were signed over the past few seasons in an attempt to boost the team into the postseason. Even Chris Wondolowski was a midseason acquisition, coming from Houston in a trade for ineffective forward Cam Weaver, in the late spring of 2009. For 2011, expect San Jose to again target offensive-minded players, especially quick right and left sided wingers.

 The flip side to the summer signings is the players the Quakes let go each season as the calendar edges closer to July. Not blessed with a large budget for the roster, general manager John Doyle has tried with a small degree of success to keep the team under the salary cap but with just enough talent to be a mid-table team. This year they already have traded away dependable defender Brandon McDonald to DC United for allocation money. With the July 1 date for guaranteeing salary-budget players past, the Quakes are unlikely to waive anyone ahead of the opening of the transfer window. Trades remain a possibility to open up more budget room to sign new players, but few expendable players on the roster likely have value on the open market. As the roster is currently set up, the Quakes look likely to play the cards they have been dealt. The San Jose franchise may not be set up to contend for the Supporters Shield on an annual basis, but they are built to stake a claim on a postseason berth and perhaps catch fire for a deep playoffs run.

Quake, Rattle and Goal! asks The Goat Parade:

1) Chivas USA turned some heads earlier in the season with a run of games that featured some excellent defending. The team has slipped down the Western Conference table as of late, winning just one of their last eight games, and letting their goal differential slip below zero. Has it been a lack of defensive effort or a sub-par offense that is chiefly to blame for the Goats recent run of form?

Neither the offense or defense is lighting the world afire, but I think the defensive problems have been much more worrisome, especially in light of the fact that Chivas did have that stretch when their defense was quite stout. While the defense hasn't totally gelled, I think there was hope that Coach Robin Fraser had found a backline that could compete on a weekly basis in the league. Now, that confidence has disappeared, and squad rotation has contributed to the troubles. When Chivas were playing well, they were essentially using a very small group of about 14 players, but since most players have returned from injury and international duty, I think the rotation of more players has hurt their chemistry, especially defensively. Rotation is necessary in a long season, but there have been growing pains in integrating more players into the lineup.

2) By all accounts, Nick LaBrocca has been the team MVP leading up to the midway point of the season. What are some of the qualities to his game, and can he continue to deliver for the remainder of 2011?

LaBrocca has been a real surprise this season. After being obtained in the offseason from Toronto FC, he has proved to be a real key for Chivas on the offensive end. He has scored 4 goals so far, which nearly equals his career MLS totals, and he has contributed 3 assists, so he has been involved in one-third of the team's goals on the season. In particular, two goals, on Saturday against Chicago and June 1 against Vancouver, demonstrate the effect he can have on a game. In both matches, he scored a much-needed goal within two minutes of the restart, his determination helping Chivas to a point in both matches. He is also capable of doing the dirty work behind the scenes in midfield, as he has some grit, can disrupt the opposition's midfield play, and can win balls for his teammates. I think the best sign moving into the second half of the season for the Goats is that LaBrocca and Marcos Mondaini have played exceptionally well together and have really formed an understanding where they can delegate offensive duties and bring the best out of each other. If both players can stay on the field for the rest of the season, Chivas have at least a shot at a playoff spot.

3) Chivas beat the Earthquakes earlier this season at Buck Shaw Stadium 2-1 courtesy of a late goal from little used substitute Mariano Trujillo. What newcomer or unheralded player currently getting playing time for the Rojiblancos could be making headlines this Wednesday night in the rematch?

He is still learning the game, but I think this has been midfielder Jorge Flores' breakout season. Fraser likes his play, as he has started 14 games this season, and has really shown flashes that he can blossom into a fantastic player. He is still only 21, even though this is his 5th season with Chivas, and he needs to continue to work on his finishing ability and consistency, but I think Flores has a few more goals in him this season, and Wednesday night might be the time for him to get some more recognition.