Armchair Analyst: San Jose's unique gameplan

Red Bulls undone by Earthquakes' unusual "lopsided" formation

The San Jose Earthquakes' Scott Sealy

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The San Jose Earthquakes’ 3-1 victory (3-2 on aggregate) over the New York Red Bulls on Thursday night wasn’t, as it turns out, quite as rare as Halley’s Comet.

But that doesn’t mean coming back from an aggregate deficit on the road is something we should all get used to. It won’t happen a lot because mistakes — in preparation, in execution — like the ones the Red Bulls made don’t happen a lot.

They do, however, happen sometimes. Thursday was one of those times.


The Formations

The Red Bulls eschewed the 4-5-1 manager Hans Backe has become so fond of for a more traditional 4-4-2, using the same lineup and formation that had led to a 1-0 win in San Jose at the weekend. This pushed Mehdi Ballouchy out wide to the left and pushed Joel Lindpere into a central pairing with Rafa Marquez.

Frank Yallop and the Quakes, after the weekend’s ineffective performance, made a significant adjustment. The lineup card may have said “4-4-2,” but the reality is that San Jose play a unique formation, one that defies comparison to any other team in the league.

Chris Wondolowski is listed as a right midfielder, and he accepts the responsibility of that role on the defensive side of the ball. Offensively, however, Wondo isn’t tasked with the typical responsibilities of a midfielder; instead he’s simply an attacker who relentlessly gets to the back post

The Quakes make this happen with an ingenious formation. Ryan Johnson (or, later, Eduardo) is played as a bulldozer, dragging the opposing defense all over the field, creating space and time for his teammates, and generally thinking “pass first.” Not exactly a traditional No. 9.

Bobby Convey and Geovanni are the playmakers. Scott Sealy plays central midfield in front of d-mid Sam Cronin, but he isn’t asked to be a creator. He distributes, applies high pressure, presents himself as an outlet and crashes the near post on crosses. Ramiro Corrales, the left back, pushes into attack at every opportunity.

What ends up happening is a lopsided formation where as many as five Quakes combine on the left side, dragging the opposition out of shape in an effort to get Wondolowski isolated (or, as the case may be, totally unmarked) at the far post.

It works. MLS defenses have become ruthlessly efficient at shutting down traditional center forwards and traditional avenues of attack. The goals-per-game average in the league has dropped sharply over the past five years, and that’s why.

So, someone needed to change the dynamics of the game. If central defenders are so good, do what you can to take them out of the equation.


The First Half

All that said, it was a bit shocking to see San Jose start the game by playing down the right flank and getting Wondolowski into 1-on-1 situations with New York’s left back Roy Miller. Wondo is good in those situations — he easily got around Miller on his first foray — but it’s not what was expected.

It was effective, though.

The Quakes struck paydirt in the 6th minute. Johnson and Wondolowski temporarily swapped spots, confusing New York just enough to give the big Jamaican time and space to serve in a near-perfect cross. Sealy’s knock-down fell to the penalty spot, and Convey was able to side-foot it home unmolested.

WATCH: Convey opens scoring

Marquez, who should have been there to clear the danger, hadn’t tracked Convey.

This was just the first example of poor execution on the part of the Red Bulls.

In the 45th minute it should have been 2-0 to San Jose. Geovanni won the ball at midfield and quickly played it into space for Johnson down the left-hand side. Sealy made a run to the near post. Wondolowski made a run to the far post.

Miller incredibly left Wondolowski unmarked, choosing instead to drift toward Sealy — who was already accounted for, being blanketed by Tim Ream.

In a stroke of good fortune for the Red Bulls, Johnson overhit his cross. If he hadn’t, Wondolowski would have had an unmarked tap-in at the back post.


The Second Half

Neither team changed tactics in the second half, even though Corrales had to go off for a hamstring strain. Convey simply dropped to left back, Johnson to left midfield and Eduardo came up to play the bulldozer role.

New York controlled most of the play for the first 25 minutes, generating multiple chances through Juan Agudelo. The rookie forward looked for all the world like a veteran rather than a guy with less than two full games of MLS experience.

But it was the Quakes that struck first, and again it came from that overloaded left side. It was less a “tactical” goal, though, than it was a moment of pure brilliance form Convey. He turned Ream — who’d been flawless to that point — and walked in on Bouna Coundoul before finishing, emphatically, over the keeper’s shoulder.

WATCH: Convey doubles the score

It should be noted that, had Convey decided to cross, Wondolowski was alone at the far post.

The New York response wasn’t long in coming. Agudelo slipped between the lines of midfield and defense, received a very nice ball from Miller, and found space in the box after shaking off Jason Hernandez. Convey didn’t track Juan Pablo Ángel’s back-post run, and the captain had the easiest of headed tap-ins to equalize on aggregate.

WATCH: Ángel responds

Minutes later Wondolowski finally found the chance he’d been searching for. The New York defense had been pushed back deep into its own end, so when the ball came to Convey — 40 yards out on the left side, totally unmarked — he had time to pick his spot.

He picked Wondolowski, who’d cut inside a sleeping Miller and had a free header from 12 yards out. 3-1 on the night, 3-2 aggregate.

WATCH: Wondo wraps it up

For New York, it just wasn’t meant to be. Their inability to identify and account for San Jose’s biggest threat brought their season to an early end.


Final Thoughts

Whoever San Jose play next will have to be better prepared than the Red Bulls were. The Quakes gameplan is unique to them, but it’s something they’ve done consistently through the second half of the season. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise.