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Monday MLS Breakdown: Constant Changes Unsettle Earthquakes Defense

By Kyle McCarthy

There are multiple reasons why San Jose has transformed from one of MLS' best defensive teams in 2008 to one of its worst in 2009, but the most demonstrative of those factors showed up yet again ahead of Saturday night's 2-1 loss in New England.

In a season full of changes in San Jose, no spot on the field has felt the lack of continuity more than the Earthquakes' back four.

Over the past three games, the revolving door had stopped. A rejuvenated defense had picked up its first two shutouts of the 2009 campaign – clean sheets against Seattle (4-0) and Kansas City (1-0) sandwiched a loss to Columbus (3-0) – in its past three games before trekking across the country to face the Revolution. In each of those three games, Earthquakes head coach Frank Yallop had the luxury of naming the same back four: Bobby Convey at left back, Jason Hernandez and recently converted midfielder Brandon McDonald in the middle and Chris Leitch at right back.

With Hernandez suspended against New England after picking up his fifth booking of the year against the Wizards last Saturday, Yallop knew he had to make one change and planned to insert utility man Ramiro Corrales in a straight swap for Hernandez. Those plans changed considerably when Convey felt his hamstring tweak in Friday's training session and wasn't deemed fit enough to go on Saturday night. 

Instead of making one change, Yallop had to make a series of changes. Convey's absence pushed Corrales over to his natural spot at left back and forced Yallop to drop versatile Brazilian midfielder Andre Luiz into a central defensive role. Losing Luiz from central midfield meant Simon Elliott came into alongside the restored Ramon Sanchez in the middle of the park.

Those changes didn't necessarily contribute to San Jose's demise – though Luiz marred an otherwise decent game at centerback by flubbing a clearance for Steve Ralston's opener and Corrales endured a rather torrid night at left back  – but they did display exactly how difficult it has been for Yallop to put out a settled back four this season.

Continuity, whether in central defense, central midfield or anywhere else, has been difficult to find for the Earthquakes and has contributed to the defensive struggles, according to Yallop.

“There's a little bit of continuity (now) in the team and in the belief in the defensive duties for everybody on the team,” Yallop said after the Earthquakes finished up a light training session on Friday. “Up until two or three games ago, I haven't had the same lineup for 17 or 18 games. That's a product of reality, but now we believe a little bit more in each other defensively and we've clued in on that.”

Clued in would accurately describe the back four Yallop fielded for most of 2008. No member of Yallop's defense – Eric Denton on the left, Jason Hernandez and Nick Garcia in the middle and James Riley on the right – played less than 24 games. The back four combined with the often-spectacular goalkeeper Joe Cannon and central midfielders Francisco Lima (an inspired mid-season acquisition) and Corrales to permit opponents to score a meager 38 goals in 30 games, good enough for fourth in the league.

That unit didn't come back in tact for 2009. Seattle selected Riley in the expansion draft and made him its starting right back. Lima opted for a return to Europe with Taranto (Italy Serie C1) after his deal expired. Other key attacking cogs like Ronnie O'Brien (free agent) and Scott Sealy (moved to Maccabi Tel-Aviv (Israel), though reports in Turkey have indicated he was on trial with Ankaragucu as of last week) left on free transfers as well.

“We know it's not easy,” Yallop said. “You're starting from scratch. The first year was tough, but the second year, we lost a lot of guys that we wanted to keep and couldn't keep for whatever reason.”

Without Lima to boss things in central midfield and with Hernandez sidelined for four months with a calf injury, the Earthquakes floundered defensively to start 2009. The aging Garcia didn't have Hernandez's pace to cover for his lack of it, leaving him ruthlessly exposed in central defense when others couldn't fill Hernandez's boots. Denton, too, found it hard to cope at left back, though Chris Leitch, acquired from New York in the close season, more than ably filled in for Riley on the right side.

The defensive difficulties prompted substantial changes. Garcia (shipped to Toronto FC for cap relief) and Denton (released) were eventually sent packing in June, with oft-injured centerback Ryan Cochrane (sent to Houston, where he has recovered from persistent ankle problems and settled in nicely, for an international slot) soon to join them in August 

Others tried to step up and fill in the gaps. Aaron Pitchkolan came in from FC Dallas to compete for time at center back, while Michael Zaher stepped up from the reserves and claimed the left back spot for a spell. With Convey struggling on the left wing and in central midfield, he eventually moved to left back once Darren Huckerby returned from a hip ailment. Central defender Fabio da Silva joined in August, but he has yet to feature with his fitness a concern at this point.

Those defensive changes –  combined with the trades of forwards Pablo Campos (Real Salt Lake) and Cam Weaver (Houston) – needed to happen sooner rather than later to move the team onwards, Yallop said.

“I've tried a lot of guys,” Yallop said. “Some players that we've moved on, I felt, didn't quite work out. You get caught hoping they're going to work, but you can't get too hung up on leaving it and hoping they'll get better. You have to make a change. We've moved a few guys for the better. Now we're starting to look better and we've added in the right areas. We still need to add some players, but it's a process (as an expansion team).”

That process has led to a lack of continuity. After fielding four players with 24 or more appearances at the back (plus Cannon's 30 starts), the Quakes have had to rely on Leitch (21 out of 22 games with the only game missed due to suspension) and Cannon (22 starts) to provide the consistency in a rotating backline. San Jose's 40 goals conceded in 22 matches is second-worst in the league, though New York has allowed one more goal in two more games.

All of the chopping and changing isn't enough to dismiss the on-field problems, according to Leitch.

“There has been some shuffling going on during the year, but you're going to get with every MLS season,” Leitch said. “There's always injuries, people out of form, people coming back into form. The bottom line, for the majority of the year, is that we haven't found the right combination of personnel, chemistry and team shape.”

Leitch said the Earthquakes have performed better defensively in recent weeks because they have started to work through those issues. With a more coherent and consistent lineup, Yallop has been able to work more on the team shape and make the Earthquakes a bit more difficult to break down. The key, Leitch said, is to find a way to accommodate all of the team's attacking talent while also striking the correct balance between attacking endeavor and defensive responsibility.

“We've identified and worked on it recently,” Leitch said. “It's made us a little bit more comfortable back there. Everyone is connected and is on the same page. That has helped tremendously.”

So has the now-renewed consistency in player selection. Hernandez's return to full fitness from the nagging calf injury has restored his explosiveness (“He looks back to the Jason of old,” Yallop said.) and McDonald's emergence (Yallop said he thinks the former Los Angeles defensive midfielder has the chance to go all the way as a center back if things break right.) have steadied the central defense. Convey has taken to left back fairly well and said he expected to return from that hamstring injury for the Earthquakes' next game against Colorado on Sept. 18. Former Brazilian international Luiz has filled the hole Lima left ably with Sanchez another promising addition in central midfield.

With the playoffs all but a distant hope, Yallop and the Earthquakes are trying to win games now while also figuring out how to approach things for next year.

Changes are likely to beckon once again in the close season. Yallop said he hopes to turn Luiz's loan into a permanent deal, while doubts revolve around the futures of Arturo Alvarez (Yallop said a foreign club is interested in acquiring his services), Convey (a suburban Philadelphia product who might interest the Union if the price is right, though Convey and Union coach Peter Nowak didn't always see eye-to-eye when they were together as coach and player in D.C.) and Huckerby (out-of-contract at the end of the season with a nagging hip ailment and persistent rumors about a return to his beloved Norwich City continuing to plague him). Though Yallop lauded Cornell Glen's contribution since joining, the Earthquakes are expected to dip into the market for a high-end striker and, perhaps, another center back as well.

Those alterations are in the future. For now, Yallop said he's focused on trying to build his team to compete now and compete next year. Those plans take a hit in second halves like the one his side suffered through on Saturday night, leaving Yallop to lament how he had seen other matches just like it during the course of a lost season.

“We looked a little bit stretched, if that's the right word,” Yallop said of his team's second half performance. “We put a lot into the first half and we got a little stretched and out of shape. But, again, it's the same old story, really. It's tough to take.” 

Road dogs have their day

D.C. United (1-5-6, 9 pts.), Real Salt Lake (1-8-2, 5 pts.) and Toronto FC (2-5-3, 9 pts.) entered the weekend with a combined total of 23 out of a possible 99 points from 33 road games.

With two wins (United's 1-0 win in Chicago and Real Salt Lake's 1-0 win in Kansas City) and a draw (Toronto FC's 0-0 stalemate in Seattle) this weekend, the trio collected seven points in three road games. In one weekend, the trio matched nearly a fourth of its combined efforts (30 points in 36 games – D.C. 2-5-6, 12 pts; RSL 2-8-2, 8 pts.; TFC 2-5-4, 10 pts.) on the season in approximately eight percent of its total games.

Week 24 – Questions, Thoughts, and Answers

Monday MLS Breakdown Player of the Week – Bryan Namoff, defender, D.C. United

Namoff wins the gong over Real Salt Lake's Pablo Campos (two goals in two games) and Chris Seitz (seven saves in the absolutely vital 1-0 win over Kansas City on Saturday night) for setting up and scoring the goal that handed United its second road win of the season in Saturday night's critical 1-0 victory in Chicago. Namoff's diagonal ball to Santino Quaranta drew a foul from Chicago's C.J. Brown. Namoff then headed home Christian Gomez's tantalizing free kick to give United all the cushion it would need after 11 minutes. In addition to his game-winner, Namoff helped United's new-look bend-but-don't-break back four pitch its first road shutout of the campaign and snatch its first road win since April 26.

Namoff has now tallied two of his four career goals in a little over a month after converting a diving header in July 18's 3-1 home win over Colorado. Gomez has also collected two of his four assists on the season by setting the table for Namoff.

Peculiar Refereeing Decision of the Week – Hilario Grajeda, referee, Colorado - Houston


Grajeda was presented with two separate incidents involving the use of an elbow in Colorado's 1-0 win over Houston on Sunday afternoon:

1. Colorado captain Pablo Mastroeni flew through the air and used excessive force in planting an elbow in Andrew Hainault's mouth after 63 minutes. Mastroeni then suffered an apparent arm injury and limped off the field, only to return moments later. The incident had Houston head coach Dominic Kinnear signaling for Grajeda to go to his back pocket, an indication that Kinnear thought the challenge deserved a red card.

2. Houston midfielder Brad Davis used excessive force in his aerial challenge on Mehdi Ballouchy with five minutes to play, planting his knee into his back and his forearm into the back of his head.

The first incident appeared far more serious than the second incident at first glance, but Grajeda showed a yellow card to Mastroeni and a yellow and a red card to Davis for the respective challenges. Disregarding his rather odd decision to show a yellow and then a red (MLSnet has the dismissal as a straight red for violent conduct) on Davis' ultimately correct dismissal, Grajeda appeared rather inconsistent in wielding his plastic given his surprising leniency towards Mastroeni and his ensuing lack of it towards Davis.

MVP Tracker

1. Landon Donovan, Los Angeles midfielder – Still the leader by a long, long way.

2. Shalrie Joseph, New England midfielder – Joseph notched his team-leading eighth assist on Steve Ralston's opener after switching to a target role with just under a half an hour to play in Saturday's 2-1 win over San Jose.

3. Omar Cummings, Colorado forward – The lively Colorado forward earned Telefutura's man of the match honors in Sunday's 1-0 win over Houston after another threatening display.

Next in Line: Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Columbus midfielder; Chad Marshall, Columbus defender; Dwayne De Rosario, Toronto FC midfielder; Fredy Montero, Seattle forward; Conor Casey, Colorado forward.

The Starting XI

1. Toronto FC should make the two-day travel cushion standard fare for its West Coast journeys after its first-half performance in Saturday afternoon's 0-0 draw with Seattle. TFC left the Toronto area on Thursday instead of Friday, one day earlier than it had departed for its 2-0 submission to Chivas USA a week prior. Instead of wandering through the match, TFC used its fresher legs to create chance after chance in the first half, including Amado Guevara's effort off the crossbar. The extra night in a hotel might cost the Reds some extra coin, but it's a tactic worth considering ahead of Saturday's trip to Colorado given the drastically improved performance.

2. “It'll be a must-win when we need points to make the playoffs,” Seattle coach Sigi Schmid said after a disappointing home performance netted Sounders FC a point it scarcely deserved. “We're not at that stage yet. We want to win games at home, so we're disappointed that we didn't win. I'm actually a little bit happy that we got a point because I think we could have walked away from this game with nothing.”

3. “We can't take anything out of it because we lost the game on the road,” San Jose coach Frank Yallop said after a decent first-half performance – particularly from Arturo Alvarez – petered out in a 2-1 loss at New England. “We had a chance to get something out of it. The performance in the first half was encouraging, but you have to play for 90 minutes. That's what we've not done.”

4. After a rough opening period in which Chicago probably should have taken advantage of some tenuous moments, the rejiggered D.C. United back four settled in rather nicely and pitched its first away shutout of the season in Saturday night's 1-0 win over Chicago. Though the end result was everything D.C. could have wanted, Tom Soehn will want his defenders to stop giving away those needless free kicks in and around the penalty area in future games.

5. My amateur lip-reading skills told me that United goalkeeper Josh Wicks confronted Marc Burch in stoppage time because he wanted some room to breathe. Wicks was trying to push his backline out ahead of John Thorrington's free kick from the right wing to allow himself some space to come out for the cross if it entered into his six-yard box. In Wicks' estimation, Burch wasn't listening to what appeared to be full-throated yells to push the line out. Wicks ended up having to push Thorrington's cross away with a man in his face, likely prompting the confrontation. It's tough not to like Wicks' fire, but perhaps there's a better way to handle the situation than grabbing your defender and excoriating him in the waning minutes while protecting a 1-0 lead. Wicks didn't comment on the incident after the game, while everyone who would speak on it offered platitudes, according to the Washington Post.

6. Real Salt Lake head coach Jason Kreis needed to change up his side's road mojo ahead of a must-win game against Kansas City. Kreis opted to play a reserve-infused side in RSL's third game in seven days with Raphael Cox and Chris Seitz included from the start and Jean Alexandre inserted at halftime after Ned Grabavoy's 42nd minute ejection. The move worked as RSL held out gamely in the second half – Fabian Espindola's goal line intervention on Zoltan's stoppage-time header certainly helped – to grab a much-needed 1-0 win. “There had to be some rotation,” RSL coach Jason Kreis told the Salt Lake Tribune. “I don't feel like there's too many of the guys that should and could be trying to play 90 minutes three times in six days. We've got a lot of guys we believe in. Chris Seitz is somebody that we think has been training extremely well for quite a few weeks now and deserved an opportunity and he took full advantage of it tonight.”

7. “I anticipated the ball bouncing and going through where it did,” Los Angeles midfielder David Beckham said after his 80th minute one-hopper gave the Galaxy a 1-0 win over Chivas USA and the SuperClasico crown for a fourth time in five tries. “And obviously it did on a wet night and a wet pitch, I had to hit it down because it was bouncing awkwardly. Sometimes they can end up in the back row, luckily this time it ended it the back of the net. It wasn’t the prettiest thing, but three points is three points.”

8. Another inauspicious effort from Houston in its 1-0 loss in Colorado. No spark or zip in the attacking third. Fatigue or no fatigue, the Dynamo has to improve with Los Angeles steadily gaining ground in the Western Conference playoff race. Fortunately for the Dynamo, they don't play again until traveling to Columbus on Sept. 13.

9. Colorado provided decent value for its win, but had to overcome the first-half injury withdrawals of Cory Gibbs and Jamie Smith. That's the risk Rapids head coach Gary Smith takes every time he puts those star-crossed players together on the field, though both were injured in clashes with Dynamo players rather than picking up strains or niggles.

10. The warning signs were there for the Crew moments before Dane Richards tore down the field on the counterattack and fired home to give New York a 1-0 victory on Sunday evening. In the space of a few minutes, the Crew gave up two quick counters directly from Gino Padula's poor service on corner kicks from the right wing corner. On the first occasion, in the 51st minute, Padula hit an easily-cleared inswinging corner, Emmanuel Ekpo's subsequent cross was eventually cleared out and Richards engineered a four-versus-three counterattack that ended when Richards somewhat surprisingly fired a deflected shot towards goal with John Wolyniec calling for the ball to his right. In the buildup to Richards' 63rd minute winner, Padula played it short, Frankie Hejduk had his attempted cross blocked down and Richards ended up one-versus-one with Brian Carroll. Richards used his speed to gain separation and fired home at the near post. Though Columbus had escaped moments earlier when John Wolyniec hit the left post minutes earlier, one has to wonder whether the Crew would have earned a point in a rather drab game if Guillermo Barros Schelotto had been on the field to take the corner kicks.

11. While Barros Schelotto may have prevented the game-winning-goal with better service into the penalty area, he probably should haven't taken the field much before his late cameo as the Crew pressed for an equalizer. The health of Barros Schelotto's hamstring for the playoffs is far more important than a point in New York, especially with Chicago's surprising home loss to D.C. on Saturday night.

BONUS: Columbus is 0-8-3 at Giants Stadium since 2003 and has won just once on artificial turf (in New England on Sept. 27, 2008) since 2007, according to the Columbus Dispatch. Those two facts could make a first-round tie with New England, Seattle or Toronto FC quite interesting for the Eastern Conference leaders.

The Playoff Picture

Eastern Conference

1. Columbus (10-4-9, 39 pts.)
2. Chicago (10-6-8, 38 pts.)

Western Conference

1. Houston (11-7-7, 40 pts.)
2. Los Angeles (9-4-11, 38 pts.)

Wild Cards

1. Seattle (8-6-10, 34 pts.)
T2. New England (9-6-6, 33 pts.)
T2. Colorado (9-7-6, 33 pts.)
T2. Chivas USA (10-9-3, 33 pts.)

==

T2. Real Salt Lake (9-9-6, 33 pts.)
D.C. United (7-5-11, 32 pts.)
Toronto FC (8-8-7, 31 pts.)
FC Dallas (6-11-5, 23 pts.)
Kansas City (5-10-6, 21 pts.)
San Jose (5-12-5, 20 pts.)
New York (4-16-4, 16 pts.)

Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSnet.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at kyle.mccarthy@goal.com and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.

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