SANTA CLARA, Calif. – The first time Yannick Djalo was selected by San Jose Earthquakes coach Mark Watson as a strike partner for Chris Wondolowski, on May 3 in Vancouver, the partnership lasted barely 9 minutes before the Portuguese import went down with a muscle strain and had to trudge off the field.
The second time around, things worked a little better.
With Djalo sliding from the wing into a slightly withdrawn forward role and Wondolowski moving up to the tip of San Jose’s 4-4-2 formation, the Quakes unleashed a torrent of goals from an attack that has lagged for much of the season. The final tally: One goal for each player, two assists for Djalo and another helper for Wondolowski in a 5-1 flattening of the Chicago Fire on Wednesday night.
“That’s probably the position he does best at, just getting in those little pockets and turning and running at the back four,” Watson said of Djalo. “He’s obviously a very good player. He’s very dynamic, uses the ball well, and I thought it was a fantastic performance.”
The move might not have happened at all if Steven Lenhart had not suffered what Watson termed “a little injury” to his knee that tripped him up during the club’s pre-game fitness test. That – combined with a night off for Alan Gordon for reasons Watson wouldn’t specify – opened the door for Djalo to have his best game in 12 appearances since joining San Jose on loan from Benfica.
“I thought Yannick played well,” Wondolowski said. “He plays really well underneath. He makes it so hard on defenders and makes a lot of other people’s jobs a lot easier.”
It all added up to the Quakes’ biggest margin of victory since a 4-0 win against Chivas USA on Sept. 2, 2012, and their largest goal total since a 5-0 whitewash of 10-man Real Salt Lake on July 14, 2012.
“We connected passes, and it’s just one of those encouraging things when you do the right thing and the you see the results,” Wondolowski said. “Sometimes this year, we’ve done the right thing but haven’t gotten the results. It’s a bit frustrating. You start scratching your head. You wonder if that really is the right thing. But I think today really showed us that when we get the ball down and connect those passes and finish off chances, it’s a good recipe.”
San Jose found a willing sous chef in the form of Chicago’s backline, which persisted in its high pressure even after the Quakes showed their adeptness at finding and exploiting empty spaces. Those gaps only grew larger as the deficit increased.
“The big difference was just the fact that Yannick and Wondolowski were finding the ball underneath in a good space, where it was causing their defense to make a decision to come tight or drop off,” Earthquakes winger Shea Salinas said. “If they came tight, it allowed spaces for Atiba [Harris], me and either Yannick or Wondo to run behind, which we were very successful on. And then if they dropped off, they could turn and run at the back four. . . . We’ve been working on that in training a lot, getting one of those two guys underneath to find the ball.”
While it may be too soon to call the era of the target man over in San Jose – after all, either Gordon, Lenhart or Atiba Harris have still started 16 of 18 matches thus far this year – the Djalo-Wondolowski pairing has certainly earned future looks from Watson.
“I thought they established a good relationship pretty early on, were on the same page and had some good moments in the game,” Watson said. “When you’re searching for performances, results, points, you try different things. Based on the performance tonight, I think that things look pretty good. I think there’s a chance we’ll see that again.”
Wondolowski, San Jose’s captain and lone Designated Player, said he would have no problem ceding what has been his primary position during his run of 82 goals in 145 matches since rejoining the Quakes in 2009.
“One hundred percent, yeah,” Wondolowski said. “If we get results like that, I will go play wherever.”