SAN JOSE, Calif. — The San Jose Earthquakes will always be intrinsically linked with the Houston Dynamo, their opponent this Saturday at Avaya Stadium. Following the 2005 Major League Soccer season, the Quakes franchise was relocated to Texas and rebranded, with black and blue traded in for brilliant orange.
The Dynamo won consecutive MLS Cup championships in their first two years in Houston, infuriating a lot of former Earthquakes supporters still pained by the club’s move. A new franchise in San Jose began play in 2008, and a natural rivalry with the Dynamo was born.
In 10 seasons since their first meeting, Houston holds the edge in head-to-head play, earning a 11-8-2 record. This season, after four games played, the two teams are level on four points and are tied for ninth place in the Western Conference.
The Earthquakes return home following a hard-earned point on the road last weekend against the Philadelphia Union, while the Dynamo last played two weeks ago, losing at home to the New England Revolution. Both teams have not tasted victory since the opening day of the season.
Houston features a fast attacking side, one that on the road tends to emphasize an organized defense and a potent counterattack. The Dynamo is likely to play a style reminiscent to that which was on display when Minnesota United visited Avaya Stadium in early March. The Earthquakes won that game 3-2, as marquee offseason signing Magnus Eriksson and the rest of the team hung on for the full three points.
“They are fast, but like all teams we play against, they have fast guys up front,” Eriksson said. We know what we should do, and we are going to try to stick to the game plan.”
San Jose lost its last match at home, falling to New York City FC 2-1 in a back-and-forth affair to close out the month of March. The Quakes outshot NYCFC that night, but they failed to break through the visitor’s defense, and the sting of losing is still there two weeks later.
“In general, we have played better at home, and that is normal,” Eriksson said. “All MLS teams are good at home, so we have to continue to play good at home because against New York it wasn’t good enough to win the game, but it will be good enough this Saturday.”
While New York beat the Earthquakes with a strong possession game, Houston will come into Avaya Stadium and try to counter them into submission. The Dynamo front three of Andrew Wenger, Mauro Manotas, and Alberth Elis have proven to be as potent an attacking corps as any in MLS, and second-year defender Nick Lima knows San Jose’s back line will be tested.
“We have to limit them from getting in behind the defense and catching us on the counter when we get numbers forward and get caught in transition, especially on the wings,” Lima said. “In dealing with Elis, we have played him in the past and he’s created problems. Hopefully, I get to be on his side and I can get in his ear a little bit. I did that last year, and it was fun. Getting under his skin is what I want to do. Play that role, it’s chippy and scrappy, and make sure he doesn’t do much in the game. I’m given that role, and I have to go out there and do it.”
The Earthquakes plan to dictate play as much as possible, something they were unable to do last weekend against the Union. In training all week, head coach Mikael Stahre experimented with his lineup and formation, trying to find the right combination of players to take the next step in producing better results. He likes what his offense is capable of doing, having scored seven goals in four games — but the forwards can’t score if they don’t get the ball.
“The first 25 minutes against Philadelphia was a disaster,” Stahre said. “We hardly crossed the halfway line, but when we did, we had some chances. So, I think we are really good when we cross the halfway line and play in the last 40 yards of the field, but we played too slow with too many passes backwards and made too many mistakes.”
“We adjusted good in the shape for the second half, but it wasn’t good enough to transfer the ball and transfer our attacks into dangerous opportunities,” Eriksson added. “We are playing good, but we need to play good for more minutes of the game and not have those dips that we have had.”
While the offense has been hitting on all cylinders, the defense has sputtered along. The seven goals scored to start the season has been canceled out by eight goals conceded. Goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell, who is starting this season after taking over the job last summer, knows he has to do better in distributing the ball if the team is going to reverse course and beat the Dynamo this Saturday.
Apr 7, 2018; Philadelphia, PA, USA; San Jose Earthquakes defender Nick Lima (24) and Philadelphia Union defender Auston Trusty (26) battle for the ball during the first half at Talen Energy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
“I need to find the open passes and make the simple plays simple,” Tarbell said. “We’re getting more organized in the back so that we can play the ball out easily. We are working on that every week. We want to give our best players the ball, and it’s our job in the back to transfer the ball to them.”
Stahre has preached an organized team effort since taking over head coaching duties in the offseason. The rookie MLS coach stated this week that the evaluation period is over, and he expects his squad to implement his tactics effectively. He is encouraged by the Earthquakes attacking four of Danny Hoesen, Chris Wondolowski, Vako, and Eriksson, and is confident that if the defenders and central midfielders can do their jobs, more goals will come.
“We will analyze this game in the proper way,” Stahre said. “The most important thing for us to do is handle the building up. When we cross the halfway line and we can face the opponent’s goal, we are very, very good.”
Stahre would not say that the game against Houston is a must win, but he did say it represents a chance to get ahead of a conference rival with a victory at home. He has hinted that changes may come to the starting lineup in addition to the replacement required for centerback Harold Cummings, who is suspended for Saturday’s game. During training this week, he rotated in different combinations of attackers and defenders in intrasquad scrimmages, but he declined to comment specifically on his starting lineup.
Eriksson didn’t want to discuss specifics either, as he understands that Stahre will make the decisions he feels will put the best team on the field against the Dynamo. Instead, the Swedish midfielder wanted to focus on the immediate task at hand: getting the Quakes back in the winning column.
“Now we have the feel the league has started for real because beginning of the season had two bye weeks in four weeks, so we are playing every weekend which is good,” Eriksson said. “Now we can catch up in games and we will start winning some games.”
When: April 14, 7:30 p.m. Pacific Time
Where: Ayaya Stadium, San Jose, Calif.
Broadcast: NBC Sports California Plus, KNBR 1050
Live Stream: ESPN+, MLS Live