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San Jose Earthquakes, Minnesota United learn plenty from Saturday’s 3-0 result

San Jose Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski attempts to find the ball as it flies between Minnesota United defenders Michael Boxall and Ike Opara, but he was shut out for the night. (Darren Yamashita/USA TODAY Sports)

SAN JOSE, Calif. — The San Jose Earthquakes, with a new head coach and a new mentality, certainly want to put their past behind them, but on Saturday night at Avaya Stadium, the ghosts on 2018 returned in a 3-0 loss to Minnesota United.

It was, as captain Chris Wondolowski described it, embarrassing to lose at home in such fashion. The stands were far from full — the announced crowd was 16,411 — as the Quakes lost their second successive home game to start the season.

Such an ignominious feat has only happened once before in franchise history, though with an asterisk attached. Back in 1998, the Clash opened the campaign with losses to both Colorado and Dallas via shootouts — MLS eschewed stalemates in its early years — after finishing level in regulation time.

Across the centerline Saturday night was an opponent that has not exactly been road warriors in its first two years in MLS. Minnesota United had collected only five points on the road all of last season. To start 2019, the lofty Loons have six in two games.

The scoreline was lopsided, to be sure, and the Earthquakes will look to quickly turn the page on the defeat, especially with a tough road game at the New York Red Bulls ahead on the schedule. But before they do, there are a few aha moments to take from the match.

Hunting High and Low

After being stymied by the Montreal Impact, a bunker-and-counter team, the week before, the Earthquakes knew they’d be facing a much different opponent in week two. Minnesota United, with it’s tough spine and talented wing players, prefers to keep matters simple and straightforward, a strategy that saw them through to a season opening win in Vancouver.

Quakes head coach Matias Almeyda recognized from that game, as well as his own side’s 2-1 loss to the Impact, that the plan to beat the Loons needed to emphasize athleticism on the wings and decisive passing in the attacking third. Afterall, Minnesota featured a formidable centerback duo of Ike Opara and Michael Boxall — two defenders that would chew up any attempts to play in the air.

Unfortunately, it didn’t go as planned.

“We made many mistakes,” Almeyda said via his translator. “The game play should have been on the ground and we planned to not send in aerial crosses because both of their centerbacks are well positioned and strong in the air. So, we wanted to make combo plays on the outside, cut in with our wing backs and forwards, and send low, strong crosses.”

For the second straight game, Almeyda started Wondolowski up top as the lone forward, and the offense seemed focused on getting him the ball. The path through the middle of the field was always going to be less fruitful, especially with Loons newcomer and MLS veteran Osvaldo Alonso commanding the region, so the Quakes looked to the flanks for openings.

Cristian Espinoza, who vacillated between playing on the right and left wings, was the primary producer of crosses into the box. He fed Wondolowski according to plan on the captain’s best scoring chances of the game, once in the 41st minute and again in the 90th.

“I remember two low crosses and one hit a post and one came to me and I missed it; I scuffed it,” Wondolowski said. “Those were the two low crosses I remember. Everything else was high crosses that were against our game plan.”

Espinoza, and the other midfielders, looked hesitant at other points in the match, not sure how to get the ball in quickly behind the Loons defense. For their part, MNUFC was well prepared for the Quakes tactics, something head coach Adrian Heath had stressed all week in the build-up to the game.

“The back four defended really well when they put balls in the box,” Heath said. “We know they have one of the best forwards in the league in terms of his movement in Wondo. I think they had only one cross on the first half, and he nearly got on the end of it when he hit the post.”

The teams had entered intermission in a scoreless deadlock — Minnesota could have claimed multiple goals if not for the heroic efforts of Quakes ‘keeper Daniel Vega — but that changed early in the second half when San Jose yielded two quick goals. By the last half-hour of the game, the Earthquakes were back to bad habits, abandoning their ground attack and hopelessly pumping aerial crosses into the box.

“We only managed to do this two or three times,” Almeyda said of . “One I think hit the post in the first half, the other one missed by only ten centimeters. But then we sent in twenty aerial crosses which wasn’t our style.”

Take On Me

Wondolowski entered the game just one goal shy of matching Landon Donovan for the MLS all-time scoring lead, and he finished the night still stuck at 144. The post kept him from tying the record in the first half, but a hearty defensive effort prevented Wondo from seeing too many more scoring chances.

Across the field from the Quakes captain was Opara, centerback for Minnesota and one of the top defenders in the league. Opara began his career with the Earthquakes when he was selected third overall in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft, and he saw plenty of what Wondolowski was capable of in his three years in San Jose. He had no intention of giving up any record setting goals on Saturday night.

“Just on a personal level, I am glad he didn’t get it against me,” Opara laughed. “Having been his teammates many years ago, that would have been something he would stick it to me when he could get a chance.”

A more solemn Wondolowski was not concerned about the specific opponent staring him across the field. Rather, he remained focused on his own efforts, and he was certainly critical of his finishing against the Loons.

“I had some high quality chances, hit a post,” Wondolowski said. “I should have finished one late as well. I think we’re just missing that final pass, final shot, and be a little bit sharper and have a deadly finish.”

Opara is convinced Wondolowski will set the record sooner than later, but he’s pleased the celebration will come against someone else. The centerback, who saw how Wondo operates in and around the box in more training sessions than he can count, praised the overall effort the Loons defense showed on the night.

“Everybody knows Wondo at this point, and he’s only one away from tying the record, but he somehow finds ways to get opportunities and make space in the box with his timely runs,” Opara said. “He’s opportunistic, and I thought we did a really good job of limiting that today. I thought we were really smart in how we defended Wondo today.”

Stay on These Roads

Last year, two of the Earthquakes four total wins came against Minnesota, including an entertaining 3-2 victory in their season opener and a dominant 3-1 result at the home of the Loons. They entered Saturday’s game with the confidence they could defeat them once again.

But MNUFC had other ideas, brimming with confidence of their own, lead by a man with a bit of a score to settle. Heath, whose teams both in Orlando and Minnesota haven’t beaten San Jose in six tries in MLS play, very much wanted to earn his first win at Avaya Stadium.

“It was gratifying because we haven’t played badly here,” Heath said. “We’ve actually played quite well here, but we haven’t taken our chances when they came our way. I was thinking a little bit that, ‘Here we go again’ at halftime. Goals change games: it’s the oldest saying in football. And if you score at the right times, especially on the road, it changes the complexity of the whole game.”

Minnesota could have easily held a multi-goal lead on Saturday had they shown some better finishing. Instead, Heath had them regroup at halftime and come out of the locker room prepared to capitalize on their chances. It paid off with not only the win, but also the shutout.

“The level of performance is what we expected, and if we play like that, it’s normally enough to win games,” Heath said. “I’m pleased with the group, pleased with the fact that it’s a clean sheet, and it’s a good start.”

Meanwhile, in the home locker room, the rallying call was not strong enough. The general feeling is that if the Quakes want to make Avaya Stadium a fortress, they can’t let a team like Minnesota come in and boss them around. Getting shut out at home was disappointing enough, but the clean sheet was Minnesota’s first since May of last year. The Loons don’t exactly have a track record of solid defense.

“I’m learning all these new facts after every game,” Opara quipped. “Last week it was our first road win over a Western Conference opponent. I think everybody’s tired of hearing the narratives that we’ve self-inflicted over the last couple of years.”

Opara, who was traded to Minnesota from Sporting Kansas City, where he was named MLS Defender of the Year in 2017, was a big piece in the Loons offseason rebuilding plan. Along with Alonso and Opara, MNUFC added Vito Mannone, Romain Metanire, and Jan Gregus. All five newcomers featured in the starting eleven against San Jose.

“It’s been a calming effect on the group, because you don’t have that, as Adrian calls it ‘baggage’ of the last couple of years,” Opara said. “We come from winning organizations, winning teams, and we have the mentality that, each and every game, home and away, we want to win. Injecting that new life has been big for a lot of the guys around us, and the belief is that we can be competitive each and every game, no matter who we are playing, and we’ve demonstrated that over the last two games.”

Such a roster overhaul could have posed a challenge for Heath, especially in getting everyone on the same page in implementing his desired style of play. But the newest Loons have enough professional experience to quickly adapt to the situation, and Opara expects the winning momentum of the last two weeks to continue.

“So far, so good,” Opara said. “It’s so early in the season, and we have a lot of improvement to do, but this has been a new challenge for me in trying to get this group of guys into the belief that we can win here, and we want to win here. So it’s been very exciting, rejuvenating in a way for me, so I am looking forward to keeping that going.”

For his part, Heath is finally making good on a promise he has asserted for his entire time in Minnesota: he can win with better players. It’s a bit of a tired refrain at times, but there’s truth in the results so far in 2019, albeit against two teams that underwent massive offseason changes of their own.

The veteran coach won’t be able to rest of his laurels just yet, as the expectations in Minnesota are for the franchise to make the MLS Cup playoffs for the first time by season’s end. The Loons open up their brand new stadium on April 13, and everyone within the organization sees it as a catalyst to a better future. Heath is confident he is the man to lead them to it.

“I’ve said this before, and I don’t wish this to be disrespect to anybody, but we’ve got a team now that is comparable with a lot of teams,” Heath said. “We haven’t had that in the past. Suddenly people think, ‘Well, he knows what he’s doing.’ Well, I’ve always known what I was doing, and when you go on the field, and the opposition has a better team than you, nine times out of ten, it normally comes through. Now, we have a team that can complete.”

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