Two weeks feels like forever in Major League Soccer time, which is why the Portland Timbers’ 3-0, breakthrough win over New York City FC feels like so long ago. But that command performance, handing NYCFC its first loss of the season, was actually only 12 days in the past, and after giving the Timbers their first back-to-back victories of the year, the win vaults Portland into Saturday’s return to play against the San Jose Earthquakes (7:30pm PT, FOX 12 PLUS (KPDX)) on its season’s first high.
“The important thing now is we have to sustain it,” Portland head coach Giovanni Savarese said in his midweek press conference. “We have to continue to grow. We have to continue to be strong, even more so, now, against a very difficult team like San Jose, this weekend.”
The extent to which San Jose is difficult may be open to debate. Mikael Stahre’s team won its first game of the season, 3-2 over visiting Minnesota United FC. Since then, the Quakes have gone 0-4-2 and slipped to 11th out of 12 in the Western Conference.
Beneath the surface, though, lies a much tougher opponent. Of San Jose’s four losses, three have come on the road, with their only loss at Avaya Stadium handed to them by NYCFC. Each of those four defeats have been by exactly one goal, which explains why, despite having won only once, their goal difference (minus-three) is almost identical to Portland’s (minus-two).
Like the Timbers, San Jose has had no trouble creating goals, matching Portland’s 12 tallies in seven games. And, like the Timbers, the Earthquakes’ main questions have come at the opposite end of the field, where their 2.14 goals conceded per game is worst in the conference.
By the most superficial numbers, the Quakes’ start has been very similar to Portland’s, meaning any confidence derived from San Jose’s slow start may be built on poor foundations. Just as the Timbers did three weeks ago, the Earthquakes can reverse course at any time, and returning home for the first time since April 14, San Jose could be desperate to do so.
Here is our weekly look at the coming matchup, our KeyBank Scouting Report:
1. Wondolowski, a lock no more
When Portland fans think of San Jose, a couple of things likely come to mind, one of which is the ubiquity of Chris Wondolowski. MLS’ active leading goalscorer has nine goals in 15 career appearances against the Timbers, and with 10 more league scores, "Wondo" will tie Landon Donovan as MLS’ all-time leader.
As of two weeks ago, though, Wondolowski's place in San Jose’s starting XI is no longer assured. That’s when, for a trip to Orlando, Stahre dropped his team’s captain, leaving him on the bench as the Quakes employed a changed look during their 3-2 loss.
Wondolowski was back in the starting lineup last week when the Quakes lost in Columbus, 2-1, and he looks set to be a key part of the team going forward. But with the end of his 56-game starting streak may have also come the end of an era. The time when San Jose would live and die by Wondo’s opportunism may be fading. Slowly, Stahre may be changing the identity of his corps.
2. A full Timbers’ squad?
Diego Chara’s recovery from fall’s broken foot meant the Timbers went into the season with an injury list. Over time, he recovered, but in the interim David Guzmán, Bill Tuiloma and Vytas headed to the recovery room. To date, the Timbers have yet to reach an MLS kickoff with a completely healthy squad.
With the exception of Roy Miller (still recovering from a torn Achilles tendon), that may change tomorrow. According to Savarese, all of Guzman, Tuiloma and Vytas returned to full training this week, and while that doesn’t guarantee they’ll be ready to play come Saturday, it puts them on course to force some tough choices.
“Now they’re going to give me a more difficult job to choose players,” Savarese said, “because now the selection is good, and everybody is getting to the same level of fitness. It’s going to be interesting, this weekend, who’s going to travel, because everybody’s fighting for a position.”
Looking back at this year’s starting XIs, you see very few players whose spots have been constant. Diego Valeri and Sebastián Blanco have been linchpins. Chara has made every lineup since returning. Larrys Mabiala, too, has been a constant.
With his squad’s full depth in place, though, Savarese has even more license to promote competition. While, for most clubs, full health means a more predictable approach, Portland may change more, having even more options to throw at opponents.
3. The need to stay focused
If there was theme that emerged from Savarese’s Tuesday’s press conference, it was the need for professionalism. We talked about it earlier this week, in describing the trap game Saturday’s match presents. The one way to overcome all those pitfalls? Focus.
“If we don’t fight through the entire match this weekend, we’re going to find ourselves in a difficult situation,” Savarese explained. “We have to be mentally prepared to understand we’re going to have a big challenge this weekend.”
Much of that challenge comes from San Jose’s two wide attackers, Magnus Eriksson and Valeri “Vako” Qazaishvili, who, according to metrics at American Soccer Analysis, are producing expected goals and assists at levels comparable to Valeri and Blanco. That we don’t hear more about the Earthquakes attack may have something to do with their record, something to do with their place on the media landscape. Regardless, Stahre has some dangerous options.
When it comes to Eriksson and Vako, those options are presenting themselves in distinctly different ways. In his first year in MLS, Eriksson’s seen much of his value tied to chance creation, leading his team with three assists. Vako, in turn, has been the San Jose player most likely to run onto changes, leading his team in expected goals.
To the eye, though, their play on the field can often look different, perhaps speaking to each player’s all-around talents. On the ball, Vako can be a very resourceful, able to connect long, line-breaking passes with the same efficiency as he can work in tight spaces. Eriksson, on the other hand, often feels like one of the Earthquakes’ most opportunistic players, finding space while cutting in from the left to punish defenses who’ve begun to ignore him.
Their talent, alone, is capable of turning games in MLS. Especially when San Jose’s at home. Especially when they’re being overlooked. Portland needs to make sure that last part is not a factor and give the Earthquakes the respect they deserve.