The San Jose Earthquakes come to Portland Wednesday for the 2018 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup fourth round match (7:30pm PT, Stream: Timbers.com, TICKETS) having already had trouble preventing goals. The 25 they’ve conceded in 13 games this season ranks 22nd out of 23 MLS teams, in terms of goals allowed-per-game, and builds ignominiously on a 2017 campaign that saw opponents put 60 past San Jose goalkeepers. I think even the Earthquakes would agree, their goal prevention needs to improve.
Unfortunately for the MLS original, two of their best defensive players are going to be gone for the next month, at least. Such is life during the World Cup, when players like Harold Cummings and Anibal Godoy, both selected by Panama, divert their attention from domestic concerns. Perhaps San Jose has some capable backups, but odds are those won’t improve on the performers head coach Mikael Stahre had chosen as starters.
It fits a greater theme for the Earthquakes, this season, one that’s seen things generally go from bad to worse. When we last talked about them, San Jose were amid a seven-game winless run, one in which each of the team’s five losses came by exactly one goal. Perhaps predictably, the Timbers went to Avaya Stadium the following Saturday and won, by exactly one goal.
San Jose responded to that loss with four points in their next two games – the team’s best stretch of the season -- but the last three weeks have brought another low. The Quakes gave up three goals in the first 37 minutes at home to D.C. United on May 19, followed that with a 1-0 loss at a Zlatan Ibrahimović-less LA Galaxy, then dropped a 2-1 result to the Chicago Fire on Saturday. Three games against struggling teams left the team with no points, 214 minutes of scoreless soccer (a streak snapped late against Chicago), and confirmation the Earthquakes still have a long way to go.
“I am standing here again, and talking about a decent away performance with zero points." Stahre said after his team’s loss to the Fire, disagreeing with the idea that the Quakes are that far away. The team was “direct” this weekend, he admitted, but in a late chance for defender Jimmy Ockford, Stahre saw a chance to get a result. His feeling was a familiar one, though with San Jose having dropped seven one-goal games this season.
“We want to win, and I prefer to play worse and get some points,” Quakes forward Danny Hoesen said. “This is part of the game. In the situation we are now, we have 21 games left, and we need to get going.”
To Stahre’s credit, you can see him trying new things. The team played with three centerbacks twice since they last faced the Timbers. Unfortunately, they conceded five times over those 180 minutes. Captain and mainstay Chris Wondolowski is no longer a guaranteed starter, though he was in Stahre’s XI for the last two games. Neither of these things have worked, but particularly with the changes from San Jose’s reliable 4-4-2 formation, you can see Stahre and his staff spending time at the drawing board.
That’s part of what makes the Earthquakes’ Wednesday arrival at Providence Park in the U.S Open Cup so interesting. Normally, with a team making two trips in a short span amount of time, you’d expect a lot of changes to the lineup. And maybe that will happen. Seven of Stahre’s players have started each of this team’s last five games, so there’s cause to rotate the squad. But there’s also a need to keep trying new things. Each 90 minutes gives the struggling Quakes another chance to find something that clicks. And if something doesn’t click with your first-choice players on the field, how valuable is that solution?
It’s the same balance that each team has to strike with the U.S. Open Cup: part of what makes the tournament interesting; and part of why, for some teams, depending on the season, the competition can feel like an obligation. And with San Jose due in Southern California three days later to face Los Angeles FC, the next league match is in view, but given the place the Earthquakes are in their development, there’s more to worry about than managing the standings. San Jose needs to start making incremental improvements, build an identity, and prove to themselves they have some foundation to build on.
There’s no use putting that off. If San Jose wants to start improving as quickly as possible, Wednesday would be the perfect springboard – a chance to come away with something positive from a competitive environment, in a tournament that will reward the result. If, however, the team needs to take its time, focus on the weekend, and improve within their normal routine, this year’s Cup debut becomes an audition, giving Stahre’s little-used options a chance to show they can spark their team’s turnaround.