Coming from their challenging CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal series against Toluca, the San Jose Earthquakes visit MLS Cup champions Sporting Kansas City to kick off week two of their regular season. From a date with the Red Devils to a trip to the cauldron: nothing will come easy to the Quakes this week.
But that is just the way the team likes it. As evident by their successive stoppage time comebacks in their last two games, the Earthquakes thrive on having their backs against the wall. There’s a reason the phrase “Never Say Die” is stitched on the back of their new red jerseys.
San Jose’s resolve will definitely be tested by the defending champions this Saturday at Sporting Park. Falling behind to Kansas City is never a good idea, not with its center back duo of Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin cleaning up messes in the back. The two All-Star defenders are a big part of the reason SKC has one of the best goals against averages over the past two seasons. Tough-as-nails head coach Peter Vermes has made Sporting into one of the most feared opponents in the league.
As the saying goes, to be the best you have to beat the best, and the Earthquakes will take aim at SKC with their own brand of defensively sound soccer. Besler and Collin may get the accolades as MLS’s best defensive tandem, but San Jose counters with their own dynamic duo in Clarence Goodson and Victor Bernardez. Goals are sure to come at a premium this weekend.
“Two good players,” said Watson of the Kansas City defenders, but used the same description for his own center backs. “They are both technically sound and make very good decisions on the ball.”
Since Goodson joined San Jose last summer, the team allowed only two goals over the last two months of the season. Paired in the center with Bernardez, the new look Earthquakes defense was very adept at closing down scoring opportunities for opponents. The two have not yet seen the field together this year, but that could change on Saturday.;
“Clarence is a fantastic player,” said goalkeeper Jon Busch. “He’s such a good leader along the back line. With Vic and Clarence we have a lot of experience back there, so it will be good to get them in there together.”
The two tandems share a great deal in common. In Besler and Goodson you have two center backs that rely more on their positional awareness than any raw athletic ability to influence play. Both defenders are expected to be included on the U.S. men’s national team roster for the 2014 World Cup, and although Besler has a slight edge in earning a starting role, Goodson is right there in the competition. For their clubs, they are the vocal leaders of the backline, the stabilizing influences.
In contrast, Collin and Bernardez are the wildcards of the pairs. Both came to MLS as experienced veterans of foreign leagues and quickly made their presence known. On set pieces, the two defenders are always in the thick of the action. In the opening match of the season, each scored an important goal off of a corner kick to earn his team a point in the standings. Both players do not back down from challenges and have seen their fair share of cards from the referees. Neither is a player opposing forwards enjoy facing.
“Victor is someone who is very good in the attacking phase of the game,” said Watson. “Whether it’s free kicks from distance or attacking corners, he’s a big powerful guy who gets his head on the ball.”
Like Kansas City, San Jose will lean on its defense to keep in games long enough for the offense to find the back of the net. But where the advantage arrow favors the Quakes can be measured in experience. Both 31 years old, Goodson and Bernardez count a collective total of nine professional seasons more than the Sporting duo. Both represented their countries at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. And along with veterans like Jordan Stewart and Andreas Gorlitz, they’ve seen it all and done it all.
“It’s an older, experienced group,” said Busch. “We know when we are playing well and when we need to step it up. That’s the nice thing about our back line. We have older, experienced guys that know the business.”
Will the wisdom of age be the deciding factor in the battle of the defenses at Sporting Park this Saturday? It may be just what the Earthquakes need to topple the defending MLS Cup holders.