San Jose Team, Earthquakes at Galaxy, 6.30.18
Photo by Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Know Your Opponent | The mental challenge that comes with the San Jose Earthquakes

These are the games where the challenge feels elusive. When, in the sessions leading into the weekend, you have to remind yourself to work. You have to prevent yourself from losing focus, even though, at times, you do. You have to notice when you’re going through the motions and be able to remember the joy of last week’s sessions, the excitement of knowing a plan is going to work, and be able to get your head in that space now.

Not tomorrow. Not on Friday. Not in the moments before you get step on the field. No matter the record of next to your opponent, no matter the impressions you’ve gotten from their results, on the Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday before the game, you have to prepare as if it’s another Atlanta. The same approach you’d have prior to a derby in Seattle, you have to have in the week before San Jose, even if you know, in your most honest of hearts, it’s just not the same level of opponent.

Nobody is saying it’s easy. In fact, the Earthquakes will count on being overlooked. They’ll know their nine games winless can play to their advantage. At least, they’ll hope it will. In the three straight draws they’ve earned – games that snapped a five-game losing run -- they’ll see progress. They’ll see hope. They’ll see a platform from which they can jump up and beat Portland.

“I think they’ve always been a difficult team,” Portland Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said on Tuesday, ahead of a Saturday match (8pm PT, ROOT SPORTS) against an Earthquakes team his squad has already beaten two times this season (once in MLS play, once in U.S. Open Cup). “I think, sometimes, when you start getting better results, you start growing in belief … we are expecting a difficult match. We are preparing for any scenarios that might come, but our guys are mentally strong and ready for this match.”

And in Major League Soccer, there just might be right. Despite the Earthquake’s league-worst 2-9-6 record, there’s reason to think Saturday’s match will be as difficult as Saverese forecasts. Because amid the ebbs and flows of a 10-month season, one where we magnify each team’s strength and weakness, we’re too quick to convince ourselves the gaps between the teams are wider than they are.

We need that space. It would be too boring to acknowledge that each team is so similar, so capable of beating one another. But the reality of a salary-capped league with finite roster spots and rigid rules that apply to all squads is that the teams just aren’t that different. When win-starved teams like the Cleveland Browns exist, “any given Sunday” might apply more to Major League Soccer than the NFL.

“I believe that every game is different,” Savarese said, shrugging aside the two victories the Timbers have already claimed against San Jose this season. “There is no, even if you face the same team, [guarantee] that you’re going to face the same situation. We need to prepare mentally. We need to make sure that we’re ready for San Jose and make sure that we’re able to give another good performance.

“It’s going to be another battle. It’s going to be another tough game … we need to be prepared, because every game, even if you play the same team, is always different.”

This is a San Jose team that, in Harold Cummings and Aníbal Godoy, had as many players on World Cup squads as the Portland Timbers. Magnus Eriksson and Vako Qazaishvili are wide talents that can trouble any team, while Dutch striker Danny Hoesen has eight goals in his last 10 appearances. Even Chris Wondolowski, who briefly appeared to be losing his hold on a starting spot, has six goals this season, a total that would place him jointly atop of the Timbers’ scoring charts.

That’s not to say that San Jose is some uber-dangerous team that is being overlooked by the masses. We believed that once, before, when the Timbers were visiting the Earthquakes, and time has told us our caution was well-founded. But they do have dangerous players, particularly in attack. They do have talents who, if you don’t take the day’s challenges seriously, they will. And in that intent, that effort, that want to finally get their team back into the win column, San Jose can pull an upset that would send the Timbers’ unbeaten run to an embarrassing close.

That’s the key thing to know about this week’s opponent. The Earthquakes’ approach isn’t complicated. They use a 4-4-2 formation that plays to their best talent’s strengths. That talent is capable, but it’s not transcendent, when it comes to the MLS world. This is a beat-you-on-any-day squad that leaves you in control of whether that day will come when you set up across the center line from them.

No, what’s most important to know about the Earthquakes is that they’re good enough to beat you – take advantage of your slips; exploit any of your exposed flaws – but they are also there to be beaten. Hence their league-worst 0.71 points per game, their two wins all season, but also their three draws in a row. For a Timbers team that have only two wins by more than one goal this season, can any opponent playing so many close games afford to be overlooked?

Come Saturday, the Timbers will have a test of the mentality Savarese has been preaching all season – the mentality he preached, again, three days ago. The week-by-week, opponent-by-opponent approach that helped the team turn from Atlanta and focus on Seattle will be tried by another struggling opponent.

In that light, three points are a must. Not a life or death, things change forever must, but a midseason sports must. Because if those points don’t come, the result will be bring a new, less lofty context to the qualities that underpinned the team’s unbeaten run.