BEAVERTON, Ore. – Sunday’s Decision Day, presented by AT&T game at Providence Park will be the last of the 2019 season to count in Major League Soccer’s standings, but for both the Portland Timbers and visiting San Jose Earthquakes, the consequences will have playoff importance (1pm PT, TICKETS, ESPN).
For San Jose, a victory (or a draw and some help) is the only way 2018’s worst team can definitively complete an improbable climb into the postseason, and while the Timbers could still make a third-straight postseason with a loss, a point or three is the only way head coach Giovanni Savarese’s team can guarantee they’ll have a 35th game of the season.
“We didn’t want to be in this position,” Savarese explained, earlier this week. “We wanted to be qualified ahead of time. We wanted to make sure we had enough points to make sure we not only qualified but we could [finish] higher in the table, to have more opportunities to be able to play at home.
“But the reality is, we could have been out already. We still have a chance, thank God, to be able to make the playoffs. And we’re in a good situation, if we do things the right way.”
Doing thinks the right way means not only taking advantage of San Jose’s wayward form but redeeming what, six months ago, was the team’s worst loss of 2019. Here is this week’s KeyBank Scouting Report:
Back to Earth – San Jose’s form
Record: 13-15-5 (44 points, eight place in the Western Conference)
Goals For: 51 goals (11th in MLS)
Goals Allowed: 52 goals allowed (15th in MLS)
Goal Difference: -1 (15th in MLS)
San Jose’s season can roughly be seen as three distinct parts: bad – their 0-4-0 start to the season; great – the team’s 11-3-5 run to playoff contention; then bad, again – the 2-8-0 stretch that’s brought them to this point. Playing a man-marking defensive scheme that took the team time to execute – and the league time to counter – San Jose was once on track for a home game in the Western Conference playoffs. Now, they're on the outside looking in on postseason spots.
|March 2 - April 6||4||0||0.00**||-12|
|April 7 - August 6||19||38||2.00*||+18|
|August 7 - present||10||6||0.60**||-7|
Recent History: April 6 is all that matters
Last game: San Jose 3-0 victory on April 6, 2019 at Avaya Stadium
All-time: Timbers are 12-7-4 against the Earthquakes
While the rest of Major League Soccer may have figured the Earthquakes out, Portland hasn’t had a chance to improve on April 6. Back then, with San Jose having lost the first four games of the Matías Almeyda era, the Timbers visited Avaya Stadium expecting their own 2019 breakthrough.
But just most of the rest of the league was caught off guard once the Quakes got rolling, so too did Portland struggle. By halftime at Avaya, the Timbers were down three goals and headed toward a new, more alarming context on their 2019’s start.
“It’s going to be our job to prove that [result] was just a fluke,” Timbers attacker Jeremy Ebobisse said of April's 3-0 loss, “and they perhaps deserved it on the day, but they are not a better team than us.”
Focus player: Valeri “Vako” Qazaishvili, San Jose left winger
Season: 31 games (23 starts), eight goals, five assists (all primary)
All-time: 23 goals in 77 MLS appearances
A 26-year-old Georgia international, Vako joined San Jose just over two years ago with the same promise so many other Earthquakes imports brought to MLS: that his arrival would be part of a new, more efficient era, one that would bring the team’s talent in line with the rest of Major League Soccer. Yet, like so many other Earthquakes imports, Vako’s promise faded into the broader context of the organization, one that was struggling for relevance amid a more demanding league landscape.
As is the case with the team around him, Vako’s reminded MLS of his quality in 2019, one that touches so many aspects of this attacking profile. With eight goals, Vako ranks second on the team behind only Chris Wondolowski, with his five primary assists placing third on the club. His 84.7 pass completion percentage is strong for his position, while the 3.5 shots he takes per game is a team high.
Picking one name out of the litany of Quakes who’ve excelled this season risks unduly overshadowing San Jose’s other contributors. Players like Magnus Eriksson, Cristian Espinoza and Jackson Yueill are worthy of their own write-ups. But after a point this spring when it seemed as if he’d lost his starting job – when he went most of May without cracking Almeyda’s XI – Vako has returned to the form that produced 10 goals last season. Seven of his eight 2019 tallies have come after June 25.
Focus matchup: Jackson Yueill versus Diego Chara
San Jose’s scheme makes it harder to identify who will consistently be matching up with whom, but through the middle of the park, there’s a chance that the Earthquakes’ young U.S. international will be asked to chase Diego Chara. And given the Timbers’ priorities come Sunday, those chases happen more often than usual.
“We are working trying to [implement] a lot of movement,” defender Larrys Mabiala explained, about the team’s approach to San Jose, “because when you play against teams that are defending with man-marking all over the place, all over the field, movement is the thing that can kill a team like that.”
Though he’s become more economical with his miles over the years, movement is never a problem for Chara, whose role as the balancing element in the Timbers’ shape can often be used against a defense. Usually camped centrally, contributing in possession while ready to blow up opposing counterattacks, Chara is famous among Timbers fans for his ability to burst from that space, attack openings in defenses, and tilt the percentages in Portland’s favor.
The best recent examples of this came last year, in goals at home against Toronto …
… and Real Salt Lake:
More often than not, Yueill or Eriksson will be asked to prevent this – a 90-minute job which, if forgotten for a moment, could decide the game in Portland’s favor. Whereas most teams’ scheme would rely on shape and positioning to contain Chara, man-marking could leave the task in the hands of one person.
As for the Timbers …
There are three major questions surround Savarese’s lineup choices before Sunday’s game:
- First, who comes into the lineup for the suspended Brian Fernandez, who will sit thanks to a red card incurred on Sunday in Kansas City;
- second, will Diego Valeri’s calf ailment have improved enough to cast him back in the starting XI;
- and third, amid a season where a number of different options have been used in central midfield next to Chara, who will get the call on Sunday – or, if the team changes formation and goes back to a 4-3-2-1, how many players will occupy midfield with the Timbers’ stalwart.
They may be the most important decisions of the regular season, though at this point of the calendar, every choice is crucial. With the Timbers, there’s no margin for error, from here forward.