California Clásico Pre Match Analysis and Quotes from Dominic Kinnear

In the long history of MLS’s best rivalry, Stanford has played host to a disproportionate share of its truly memorable moments. This year, with the teams neck-and-neck in the crowded Western Conference table, both squads markedly improved from last year’s contest, and a flagship network broadcasting the game for the first time (rather than a sports affiliate), I’m betting on this one living up to that Stanford standard in front of 50,000 this weekend.

Personnel

Both sides will go into this one shorthanded through injury and international duty. The San Jose Earthquakes will be without talisman Chris Wondolowski (USA – Copa America), Jordan Stewart (Hamstring), Andres Imperiale (Leg), Marc Pelosi (Knee), Kip Colvey (Finger), or Mark Sherrod (Knee). Clarence Goodson, out for three months now with back issues, could possibly make his return for this one, but is listed as questionable.

The Galaxy, for their part, are missing out on hitman Robbie Keane (Republic of Ireland – Euros) and forward/winger Gyasi Zardes (USA – Copa America) to their national teams. Their injury report is shorter, with only fullback Robbie Rodgers definitively out, but goalkeeper Dan Kennedy, forward Giovanni dos Santos, and midfielder Steven Gerrard show up on the injury report as potential absences.

The more important factor for the visitors will be the quick turnaround, since they’ll be playing their third game in just a week. Galaxy Manager Bruce Arena only made a few rotations for their midweek game, which may make fatigue a factor. The weather report has the kickoff temperature potentially in the 90s, which could exacerbate that problem, although it should cool off significantly over the course of the evening.

Form

Galaxy have played very well through parts of the season, racking up an intimidating +10 goal differential already. However, talk to any Galaxy fan or reporter and you’ll hear quite a lot of discontent with the way things have been going lately. While their defense has been fairly solid, they have struggled mightily to consistently produce chances with their well-paid midfield, leaving doubts going into any match where they might need to break down an opponent.

Remarkably, they have failed to score a goal in their last three MLS games, and only managed one in the 90 minutes of regular time against amateur side La Maquina in the US Open Cup in that timeframe.

There’s obviously no simple explanation for their impotence in the attacking third, but two factors I’ve noticed are the lack of tactical fit/chemistry between their DPs and relying on far too many players with the skill set of a forward (Magee, Zardes, dos Santos) in midfield roles. Both factors tend to produce highly-individualistic attacking, which is what Galaxy have put on display lately. Add to that a central midfield pair well into their 30s (Nigel de Jong and Gerrard), and a sclerotic attack almost seems inevitable.

The Quakes, for their part, haven’t faired all that much better. They had a three-match scoring drought of their own that they only recently snapped, although two of those games were against Portland’s incredibly stout defense on the road, and the third against FC Dallas was dreadfully short-handed against arguably the best team in the West. When they did finally break their duck, however, it was against a notoriously-porous Orlando side, and even then only after they made a series of aggressive attacking substitutions.

If there is hope for San Jose’s attack, it comes from the fact that many of the injured and called-up players have returned and just one of the preferred attacking options is unavailable. Manager Dominic Kinnear, therefore, might have the good fortune of naming the same lineup in consecutive games for the first time all season. The one absence, Wondolowski, obviously puts a dent in San Jose’s potency, but it does essentially force Kinnear to field the 5-midfielder lineup that has looked amongst his most productive all season, providing the rare possibility of elegant interplay in black and blue via Matias Perez-Garcia, Alberto Quintero, Simon Dawkins, and Anibal Godoy.

The question mark for me will actually be on the other side of the ball, where the decent defending performances thus far have come despite missing linchpin center-back Goodson. In his absence has been a rotating cast of characters, relying primarily on the 5’8” right-back Marvell Wynne. While I never discount a Dominic Kinnear team’s ability to stay organized, part of me can’t help but feel like the results are unsustainable, and that the scotch tape back line will eventually crack. If Goodson does make his return, that would of course be reassuring, but no matter how experienced a player is, it’s hard to walk right into competitive minutes after a three-month layoff.

Quotes from the Coach

On that very note, one of the things I asked Kinnear about this week during training was the clear vulnerability the team had on corner kicks in particular and set pieces in general against Orlando, and he had a fairly simple explanation: “One, they were a bit taller than us, two, we were a bit loose.”

While he conceded that getting the likes of Goodson and Imperiale would help shore up the area, and that “we weren’t planning on Marvell playing 10 straight games for us at center-back, or however many it is,” he emphasized that set piece vulnerability “is still an attitude. It’s not just because of size.”

Kinnear, of course, has the unique perspective of having participated in the rivalry in different forms going all the way back to his playing days in the 90s. He recalled his first Clásico, saying “We won 4-1. It was Ronald Cerrito’s first game for the team, and he scored on his debut…it was a great night.” But the Fremont native said the rivalry never stood out that strongly until the early 2000s, when he was an assistant coach, and players such as Landon Donovan and Carlos Ruiz contested the Clásico on MLS cup runs, that it truly earned its moniker.

Although Stanford is a relatively new feature to the Clásico, fans have already taken to it fondly. Asked about whether the environment provides a unique inspiration to the team, Kinnear responded “You’d have to ask the guys that, but sitting where I am it’s a great vibe…I’m sure when the guys walk out and see the side of the crowd it definitely inspires them.”

Prediction

As far as I’m concerned, San Jose has the inside track on this one with more rest, home field advantage, a more complete lineup, and a sputtering LA Galaxy attack. The visitors are generally the better team, however, and won an emphatic victory against the Quakes earlier this season after settling for a draw more recently. Still, I think an away victory would be the most surprising outcome for me. My bet is either 2-1 to the hosts, or 1-1 spoils shared.

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