A big win down in A-Town last weekend brings FC Dallas home riding a two game winning streak. This week brings the San Jose Earthquakes to the metroplex on short rest after they battled Seattle to a draw on Wednesday night. After starting the season win-less in their first four games, San Jose has picked up two wins and a draw in their last four games to bring their season points total to seven. They now sit in 9th place in the Western Conference. Dallas, after the win in Atlanta, now has 16 points and sit in 4th place in the West.
Another week, another team that’s gone through a coaching change in the offseason. Much like de Boer last week, Matias Almeyda has an incredible career resume. As a player he spent time in Argentina, Spain, and Italy with wins at every stop. But the comparison ends there because Almeyda has achieved, in my opinion, more as a coach than de Boer. Starting with Argentinian giants River Plate, who in one season, he brought back up to the first division after a fall from grace to the second division. He then took over Banfield, in the second division at the time, and led them to promotion within two years. After those two successes, Chivas Guadalajara came calling. He promptly won four trophies in three season. So, Almeyda decided to take on his biggest challenge yet by taking over San Jose.
Almeyda’s principle playing style is a pressing system, hallmarked by the unusual tactic of man marking across the entire field. In a sense, every team man marks the vast majority of a game just because certain players occupy the same parts of the field all game. But the system is different in that it’s an extreme version. Guys have one guy to mark and will follow them where ever they go. An added benefit of this tactic is that it allows them to pressure the other team quite easily as everyone is, theoretically, always in the right spot and always close to their mark. The problem is when someone gets beat and guys have to start covering for other guys. Since this is soccer, one of the most fluid sports in the world, that can happen a lot. And this was San Jose’s problem for the first four games of the season, when their defense was getting torched because of mistakes and blown coverage. But the past few weeks have seen things start to click and San Jose has held their own - beating the supremely struggling Portland; a respectable loss against a Houston team that was on fire; against Sporting KC, who they crushed; and then drawing with another hot team in Seattle.
One key to this turn around has been an improvement in personnel that can better implement Almeyda’s system. Striker Danny Hoesen started the season recovering from offseason foot surgery. But after slowly being worked into the lineup he has started the last four games (2-1-1) and his speed up top to press has allowed other players to move to better positions. Loan signing Christian Espinoza (from Villarreal) has moved to the wing and Magnus Eriksson has kicked inside to attacking midfield where his speed isn’t an issue. It’s also unlocked Eriksson’s playmaking potential because a key attribute for San Jose’s transition from defense to attack is pressing up the field in attack as much as in defense. Eriksson and the midfield will push the ball vertically as quickly as possible to get into the attacking third. Hoesen moves across the back line creating space and waiting for a through ball to unlock the defense to put him and the others in on goal. Shea Salinas and Espinoza work down the wings while Eriksson and Jackson Yueill bombard down the middle. Anibal Godoy backs everything up as the holding midfielder. San Jose tries to keep things on the ground and attacks by sending runners into the half spaces and middle using through balls and line splitting passing. It’s not to say they don’t cross, but their preferred method is through the defense rather than around.
Speaking of defense, the main source of consternation for San Jose early in the season was the defense’s troubles adapting to the man marking system. But time and practice have things looking up. Early in the season, you could see the communication issues in real time as an opposing player would break free from his mark and no one in defense would know what to do. It was that inaction and guessing that let teams rampage through the defense with ease. But, again, it appears to be getting better. Nick Lima and Tommy Thompson hold down the full back spots. Lima was a bright spot in the last international window for the USMNT and has shown as bright a future as our own Reggie Cannon. After Guram Kashia was injured, Florian Jungwirth was inserted alongside Harold Cummings to hold down the center back positions. Daniel Vega was signed in January to upgrade the goal keeper position. Although San Jose have given up a lot of goals so far, Vega has proven to not be the problem.
Try not to think about last season too much, Dallas fans. Dallas played San Jose, the worst team in the league twice last season and came away empty. But this Earthquake team is nothing like last seasons. The high pressing and man marking are certainly unique, but they’ve also learned quickly from Almeyda’s tutelage. Dallas will have to work out how to get around being man marked since, in theory, they are not going to just run into free space unmarked. Playing elusive players like Pablo Aranguiz and Santiago Mosquera, guys who can get away from their markers and create for themselves, will be one way to attack San Jose. I expect Lima to cover Michael Barrios about as well as anyone in the league. This is a game that Dallas will probably try to emulate San Jose in too, in that they will keep the ball on the ground and try to pass through the lines. I expect Jesus Ferreira to get a few good opportunities as Paxton Pomykal and the wingers are able to slide some through balls into him as he beats his man marker. The concern I have is that our midfielders have not dealt well with teams that press them. Not only will they be man marked, but that marking also creates less space than normal and I worry that that harassment will razzle guys like Paxton, Cannon, and Edwin Cerrillo.
Key Matchup: Jesus Ferreira vs Florian Jungwirth
As I keep mentioning, man marking is a very different style of play and the Dallas players will have to adjust quickly. But, as I have also noted, one break in the chain and it’s full panic and chaos on the field. If a player is able to lose or beat his marker, he is free. Ferreira has shown a knack the past few weeks in popping up in key spots and if he can beat the center backs that are marking him, it’s over. We could be seeing the development of our long awaited 15 - 20 goal striker right in front of our eyes.
Three Keys to the Game:
- Break Free: If Queens “Under Pressure” and “I Want to Break Free” aren’t on the pregame playlist yet, Luchi needs to add them pronto. San Jose will pressure the whole team all game, they must break free to survive and and become champions. (Sorry…just…Sorry)
- Calm, Cool, Collected - Also discussed earlier, Dallas hasn’t looked stellar against a strong pressure. Think about the Columbus game and how uncomfortable the team looked. They’ve got to remain poised if they want to get around the press. Having a healthy Bryan Acosta should help greatly, but even the vets will have to handle this unique system.
- Time Wasting - Once again, I feel the need to admonish and defend Jesse Gonzalez all at once. I hate that he gets these silly cards for time wasting. It shows a bit of immaturity, and refs have started to give him a shorter leash. At the same time, he wastes time because we are winning, and I love that part. Be you Jesse, be you!
On the surface, I’m slightly concerned about this game. It is such a different look and feel to play against a man marking system. It goes against most everything you’ve learned through your entire soccer career. As San Jose gets more and more comfortable, they will become more difficult to play against. But - BUT! - they aren’t fully there yet. They’ve shown improvement, but Houston was able to work through them. Seattle looked in trouble at first, but eventually figured out the puzzle and came back for draw. Sure, a draw at home doesn’t sound good, but it’s early and teams are just now having to deal with San Jose being good at their own system. As more coaches look at ways around the man marking, more answers will be found earlier in games. Luchi has made smart adjustments and I think he will come in to this game with a smart plan and adjust as the team goes. Ultimately, I think Dallas is catching San Jose, as weird as it sounds, at a good time. The season is still young and San Jose’s is still a work in progress. For that reason, I think we see a nice 2-1 win this weekend. Another one bites the dust - hey hey.