Three Questions: New York Red Bulls vs. San Jose Earthquakes

(Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images for New York Red Bulls)

The New York Red Bulls wrap up their four game road trip Saturday night against the San Jose Earthquakes live on ESPN 2 at 10:30 PM EST, so we swapped three questions with Robert Jonas over at Quake, Rattle, and Goal.

The Red Bulls avenged a devastating playoff loss at home to San Jose to end last season by beating the Earthquakes 3-0 back in April on a rainy night in Harrison, New Jersey.  A lot has changed since then, however, so let's get to it!  

1) Once A Metro: This will be Chris Wondolowski's first match with San Jose after the Gold Cup - what impact did his absence have and how might the team adjust now that he's back?      

Quake, Rattle, and Goal: Chris Wondolowski was the team’s leading scorer going into the Gold Cup break, and after missing just four games while with the U.S. Men’s National Team, still holds that position. He was adjusting very nicely to playing as a withdrawn forward behind physical target forward Steven Lenhart, where his movement off the ball helped put him in scoring position. In his absence, the Earthquakes often played in more of a 4-5-1 formation with Lenhart as the lone striker, but that experiment worked effectively just once (a 4-2 win away to DC United). Big Jamaican midfielder Khari Stephenson tried to replicate Wondo’s play, but was unable to come close to the production seen from the defending MLS Golden Boot winner in his four games as a second forward/attacking midfielder.

Wondolowski returned to San Jose immediately following the USMNT’s loss in the Gold Cup final, and has quickly inserted himself into head coach Frank Yallop’s preferred starting XI. With midfielder Bobby Convey unlikely to play on Saturday due to a knee contusion, and midfielder Simon Dawkins training hard as a second forward, Wondo may find himself as a wide midfielder against New York on Saturday as part of the Quakes 4-2-3-1 formation. No matter where he lines up for the opening whistle, with Wondo it is all about his movement away from the ball, and throughout the game he will drift from touchline to touchline and from box to box. However, given his effectiveness cutting in with his left foot, expect to see him play primarily on the right.

The adjustment for his teammates will be whether they continue to play for scoring opportunities, or whether they take a step back and defer more to their offensive leader. For a team that has not scored since their blowout win at RFK Stadium, if they are caught watching Wondo instead of helping deliver the ball to him, the Red Bulls defense will easily clamp down on the Quakes attack. Offensive players Lenhart and Dawkins, along with left wing Ryan Johnson, will need to step up their games to keep the New York defenders from keying in on Wondo. Spread the ball around in the attacking third, earn set pieces from free kicks and corner kicks, and keep defenders guessing as to the point of attack, and Wondo will surely get his chances.

 

2) Once A Metro: The Earthquakes got off to a slow start (including the 3-0 loss to the Red Bulls) earlier in the season but really improved in May/June. What changed?

Quake, Rattle, and Goal: The match following the loss at Red Bull Arena was a dismal home match against Chivas USA that was lost on a late goal from the Goats. The team shape was disjointed and the intensity of the players was severely lacking that night in the 2-1 loss at Buck Shaw Stadium. After a lengthy post match locker room meeting, coach Yallop declared to the press that no player was guaranteed to play the following weekend. When training resumed Monday morning, the most intense session of the season played out for players and coaches alike, as the competition to make the starting XI was fierce among the Quakes.

 

The match that weekend against Philadelphia featured six changes from the previous week, and despite the team losing 1-0 on a late Sebastien Le Toux penalty kick conversion, the Earthquakes looked much stronger than in their previous four matches. Forward Steven Lenhart was finally healthy and available for the Quakes, and his physical presence gave the team another dimension offensively. Shuffling up the defensive line, stalwart defender Brandon McDonald was moved from his partnership with fellow central defender Jason Hernandez, and Bobby Burling was brought in. So much so was McDonald deemed superfluous to the Quakes defensive core that this week he was traded to DC United for a duffle bag filled with allocation funny money.

 

Most importantly for the Quakes, the stagnation that had crept into the squad after the very competitive season opening loss to Real Salt Lake and the rather fortunate away win at FC Dallas was washed away in the intense training sessions that week. Yallop let it be none on the field, and a players-only meeting confirmed the notion, that even though the team made it to the Eastern Conference final last season, nothing was going to be handed to them in 2011. And while the team is by no means a candidate for the MLS Supporters Shield this season, they are talented enough to be one of the ten best teams in the league — good enough to sneak into the postseason for the second straight year.


3) Once A Metro: San Jose's roster is relatively young - besides Ike Opara and Anthony Ampaipitakwong, which young players could have a real impact at the club?

Quake, Rattle, and Goal: Second year defender Ike Opara is currently out injured with a left foot problem that remains to be publically diagnosed. Unfortunately for the highly athletic Opara, injury issues since he signed with MLS have severely limited his availability for the Quakes, and set back his aspirations to make an impression on USMNT coach Bob Bradley in time for the 2014 World Cup qualifying cycle. With no timetable yet released regarding his current ailment, Opara is unlikely to be a part of the Quakes game plans for many weeks, if not months.

 

Anthony Ampaipitakwong was gifted to the Quakes at this year’s MLS SuperDraft, as the Akron University team captain dropped off the radar for the many teams that could have selected the technically sound midfielder. Since arriving in San Jose, Ampai, as he is best known, has struggled to find his place in Yallop’s conventional 4-4-2 line-up. But when the Quakes look to stretch the field, he slots in nicely as a wide midfielder, usually on the right side. After having a breakthrough performance in a two-assist game at Chicago, Ampai has been less than impressive in the majority of his appearances. While his game makes him more suited to playing internally in the midfield, something he does to great effect with the reserve side, being stationed out on the wing often leaves him stranded without passing options to make up for a lack of speed.

 

The adjustment for his teammates will be whether they continue to play for scoring opportunities, or whether they take a step back and defer more to their offensive leader. For a team that has not scored since their blowout win at RFK Stadium, if they are caught watching Wondo instead of helping deliver the ball to him, the Red Bulls defense will easily clamp down on the Quakes attack. Offensive players Lenhart and Dawkins, along with left wing Ryan Johnson, will need to step up their games to keep the New York defenders from keying in on Wondo. Spread the ball around in the attacking third, earn set pieces from free kicks and corner kicks, and keep defenders guessing as to the point of attack, and Wondo will surely get his chances.


And now onto the three questions from Quake, Rattle, and Goal: 

1) Quake, Rattle, and Goal: What is going on with the Red Bulls right now? They entered 2011 as a huge favorite to win the MLS Eastern Conference, but as the season nears the midway point they are struggling to earns points. Can the malaise be attributed to one factor, or is it a case of lots of little issues preventing New York from dominating the East?

Once A Metro: Lots of little issues - they give up too many goals from set pieces, the team always starts the second half like the USMNT starts games (flat, uninspired, and prone to conceding goals), the manager created an unnecessary goalkeeping "controversy," lingering injuries, losing five key players for the Gold Cup which happened to occur during a tough road trip that wraps up against the Earthquakes, the list goes on. They are still in a great position to have a strong second half of the season and finish atop the Eastern Conference, but with every tie the Supporters' Shield dream gets a little dimmer, but it's still far from out of reach with fifty-one additional points still on the table.


2) Quake, Rattle, and Goal: The trade of De Rosario is obviously big news in Harrison, but the kid coming in is no slouch either. How does the exchange of DeRo for McCarty change the formation for the Red Bulls, and which of his new teammates will benefit most from the style of play McCarty is able to bring to New York?

Once A Metro: The Red Bulls have already announced a switch from a 4-4-2 diamond to a flat formation which at times may look like a 4-2-3-1 with Taino and McCarty playing the central, holding midfield roles regardless. This should help to shore up some defensive issues and really free Dane Richards and Joel Lindpere up on the wings as well as allow right back Jan Gunnar Solli and even left back Roy Miller get forward and join the attack. Then again, the real weakness for New York's defense is on set pieces, and it's not clear how much Dax McCarthy will help to improve that deficiency.

It's exciting to consider what McCarty can bring to the team. His box-to-box for ninety minutes style will be a good fit next to New York's main distributing central midfield Teemu Taino, and McCarty along with Joel Lindpere will drive opponents crazy closing down spaces quickly in the midfield and dominating possession.

The Red Bulls also seem to be moving toward bringing in some much needed defensive help with the $300,000 saved from trading De Rosario.


3) Quake, Rattle, and Goal: Goalkeeping continues to be the Achilles heel for the Red Bulls. Does Hans Backe have the 'keepers he needs to make a run at the Supporters Shield and MLS Cup this season, or is the coach looking for potential help in the summer transfer window?

Once A Metro: Bouna Coundoul irked Hans Backe by going to play in a match for Senegal during the preseason, so after the Red Bulls gave up three goals to Chivas in mid-May, Backe had an excuse to bench him for favored son Greg Sutton. Neither are elite goalkeepers but Bouna deserves a lot of credit for making spectacular saves that kept New York ahead in a number of games last season. He also has three shutouts this season in eight appearances compared to just one for Sutton.

The Red Bulls should be a good enough field team that they don't need an all-star keeper, but not having a clear number one obviously isn't helping, so hopefully Backe can settle on someone for the rest of the season or make a trade and bring in a keeper during the summer transfer window. Bouna makes $100,000 more than Sutton - and if the club views them as equal on the field we might not get to see much more of "Bouna Time." There were rumors around USMNT backup Marcus Hahnemann being on the radar but I'm not convinced the Red Bulls are willing to take on that big of a salary hit for an aging keeper.


Thanks again to Robert Jonas of Quake, Rattle, and Goal, and check back later today for a Red Bull New York vs. San Jose Earthquakes match preview.

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