The San Jose Earthquakes set a franchise record this year with 13 shutouts, more than even the 2005 edition put up while wining the MLS Supporters’ Shield.
Yet the Quakes ended the regular-season by allowing more goals than in any other match, and the sight of Kansas City's Birahim Diop scything through San Jose’s back line for his first MLS hat trick last weekend was perhaps SJ's lowlight of the season.
The question is, which Quakes defense will show up Saturday for the franchise’s first playoff match since being reestablished in 2008?
“I would say it’s probably the defense [of the 13 shutouts],” Quakes defender Tim Ward said. “We had worked so hard in the last 10 or 15 games to make the playoffs, once we got there, I don’t know if everybody felt like we could take it easy or what, but we just weren’t the same team we were when we were fighting and battling and trying to make the playoffs.
“That’s the kind of team we are – a team that has to fight. Nothing’s going to come easy for us. If we expect it to come easy, it’s not going to happen.”
Certainly, very little will be easy when it comes to stopping New York and their fearsome array of weaponry in the Eastern Conference semifinal, which begins Saturday night at Buck Shaw Stadium (Telefutura, 10 p.m. ET).
Even if Thierry Henry can’t play due to injury, Red Bulls coach Hans Backe can still run out the likes of Juan Pablo Ángel, Joel Lindpere and Dane Richards to put pressure on the Quakes.
[inline_node:321974]Richards had a standout game in the teams’ last meeting, scoring one goal and assisting on another – Henry’s MLS maiden – in a 2-0 Red Bulls victory on Aug. 28. Even with the tireless Bobby Convey playing left back, Richards’ speed down New York’s right flank simply bedeviled the San Jose’s backline on several occasions.
“To be honest, there’s not many guys in the league with that pace,” Quakes center back Brandon McDonald said. “You can’t really prepare for it. You’ve just got to come out and execute your game and do it well. We’ve gotten this far for a reason. I think we just keep continuing on that path and we’ll be alright.”
San Jose coach Frank Yallop took pains to point out that the Quakes had several solid chances go by the boards in that defeat at Red Bull Arena. And he’s looking for the same kind of wide-open contest this time around.
“They’ve got a lot of weapons,” Yallop said. “We feel that we can get at them, though. Going forward toward our goal, hopefully it leaves them a little open in the back. I expect it to be an end-to-end game. They wouldn’t come down here and sit back, I wouldn’t think. So we’ve got to be on our game, but we feel good about the matchup.”
As for the lack of motivation on display in Kansas City, Yallop has no qualms about his team’s readiness.
“When we needed to win, in the right moments, we did it this year,” Yallop said. “So it showed you the mental toughness of our group. They’ve already forgot about it. That won’t be a factor in this series at all.”
Ward understands the skeptic’s view that increasing the amount of urgency injected into a team can’t be easy as flipping a proverbial switch. But he still maintains that’s what will happen Saturday.
“I think we’ll have it, because we brought it every game until we clinched,” Ward said. “Then we let down for some reason. But I think everybody knows now that the real work begins this weekend.”
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . On Twitter: @sjquakes
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