CenterLine Report: Defense, Quakes! Defense!

Defensive line has amassed five shutouts in last nine matches

Last year about this time, most fans of the San Jose Earthquakes were not asking themselves if the team would win the Supporters’ Shield but when. The Quakes, parlaying an extraordinary number of late-game goals into points in the standings, were closing in on their best offensive season ever. And with Chris Wondolowski’s MLS record 27th goal safely in the back of the net in their final game of the season, San Jose celebrated a club best 72 goals in 2012.

But scratch a little bit below the sheen on the Shield and you will find a telling statistic — along with those 72 goals scored, the Quakes allowed 43 goals. The 2012 Earthquakes were built to outscore their opponents, not necessarily outplay them.

The script was flipped in 2013, as San Jose opened the season playing the same loose style that gained it so much success the year before. The defense, stable but not spectacular, leaked in a commensurate number of goals, but the offense was not doing its part to reconstitute the recipe. And when the ghosts of last year’s Goonies failed to appear, the Quakes slumped to a disappointing first half of the season.

In the first 20 regular season games, the Earthquakes allowed 32 goals while scoring only 20, and the team amassed a dismal 5-9-6 record — well short of the 12-4-4 record they earned during that span in 2013. The Quakes were giving up plenty of goals last season too, but their scoring prowess in 20 games was a stunning 41 goals total. While the defense had remained steady, the offense had taken a huge tumble.

Theories as to the decreased output on attack are numerous, but a fix seems out of reach for this year’s edition. So what to do? When Mark Watson was named interim head coach in early June, he stated that he wanted to instill a defend-first mentality among his troops. If the Quakes weren’t going to outscore opponents with crooked numbers on the scoreboard, then they had better shore up things defensively.

Enter U.S. national team defender Clarence Goodson and English veteran Jordan Stewart. Added to a mix that already included MLS Best XI center back Victor Bernardez and MLS All-Stars Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour, as well as long-time MLS defenders Jason Hernandez and Dan Gargan, the two newcomers immediately gave San Jose the deepest defensive corps in the league. And in their last 9 games, the Quakes have allowed only 8 goals while posting 5 clean sheets — they had only 1 shutout in their 20 previous games.

“We have amazing depth on our back line,” shared midfielder Shea Salinas after Tuesday’s 3-0 CONCACAF Champions League victory — yet another clean sheet. “It showed tonight. Justin and Jason were awesome back there. We had a shutout on the weekend as well with Clarence and Victor. Such great depth on the back line.”

Not at all smoke and mirrors, the renewed defensive effort has allowed the Quakes to double their season’s win total to 10 games. That the offense has scored only 9 goals in that 9 game span — exactly matching their scoring rate from the first 20 games on the season — has mattered less in pushing San Jose’s overall record to a respectable 10-11-8. Goodson and Stewart have certainly been catalysts, but a total of 7 players have suited up for the San Jose back four since the start of August. Their commitment to playing total team defense has kept the Earthquakes within shouting distance of the five Western Conference playoff positions.

On a roll and working well as a unit, a trip to the MLS postseason for San Jose is still mathematically possible, but with only 5 games remaining on the schedule it is not looking very hopeful that it will happen. Still, coach Watson has recognized what was going wrong with the team and has implemented a system that has turned results back in the club’s favor.

“Last year we were really good at winning the ball in good spots so our attacks started much further up the field,” revealed midfield Shea Salinas, who covers more distance on the field than anyone else on the team. “This year, our attacks have been starting from the back, and you are not going to score as many goals when you need to go further.”

The adage “Defense wins championships” is more than a tired sports cliché: it is a blueprint for sustainable success. Grinding out 1-0 shutouts can be beautiful in its own way, and occasionally that defensive effort translates into blowout wins like the 3-0 CCL result against Montreal this week. Capturing lightning in a bottle again, as San Jose did on offense in 2012, is far from easy. But solid defensive efforts are something these Quakes can excel at.

Robert Jonas is a writer for CenterLineSoccer.com and SJEarthquakes.com. Send him feedback on Twitter: @RobertJonas