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San Jose Earthquakes look to turn fortunes around against Portland Timbers

Sep 30, 2017; San Jose, CA, USA; San Jose Earthquakes forward Valeri Kazaishvili (11) controls the ball against Portland Timbers midfielder Diego Chara (21) during the first half at Avaya Stadium. (Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY Sports)

SAN JOSE, Calif. — The San Jose Earthquakes are a team caught in a crossroads. While their belief is sturdy, their record is abysmal. In seven games to start the season, the Quakes have earned but a lone victory, and heading into the weekend, they sit second from bottom in the Western Conference standings.

Following two straight losses on the road, the Earthquakes (1-4-2, five points) return to Avaya Stadium on Saturday to face the Portland Timbers — the team directly above them in the table. The Timbers (2-3-2, eight points), however, enjoy some momentum, having won their last two games. Meanwhile, the Quakes are winless in six.

San Jose is having little trouble getting on the scoreboard, having hit the back of the net in every game so far this season. The issue is on defense, where a patchwork back line, bolstered recently by the return of Florian Jungwirth in that assemblage, has shipped multiple goals in six of those seven games.

“The attitude, the commitment, are still top right now, and I can’t complain about that,” Earthquakes head coach Mikael Stahre said to Pro Soccer USA. “Sure, we lost at Orlando, but by only one goal. We lose against Columbus on a goal scored in the very last part of the game. Now, we can work on making small adjustments all the time, maybe 10% more again, and I must say that we are getting there. Of course, we are absolutely disappointed with our points so far. We have just one victory so far, and we need more than this.”

Stahre, still just four months into the job, is working overtime to determine the best mix of players and tactics to reverse the team’s slump, but no matter how much effort goes into preparation, it is still what happens on the field that matters most.

In every game this season, the Quakes have suffered from self-inflicted errors that opponents have been too happy to capitalize upon. Turnovers in the attacking half have lead to blistering counterattacks that the team’s shaky defense has not been able to handle. Both recent road losses to the Lions and Crew featured these devastating miscues.

“Mistakes are going to happen every game, no matter what team you are and who you are playing against,” midfielder Jackson Yueill shared with Pro Soccer USA. “It’s just moving on from them and being better in practice to add more ahead of games. When mistakes do happen, we need to turn on and get back defensively. Sometimes we have been too slow to react. It’s a mentality that we need to keep pushing each other and not start complaining in the field and working hard through the mistakes and the ups and downs.”

MLS is a growing league, and the separation between teams is becoming more pronounced from season to season. San Jose has an improved roster, featuring 22 players new to the team since the start of 2017, but this year’s squad has not yet gelled around a singular identity.

At times, the Earthquakes have played with a selective high press, giving opponents fits and creating turnovers that the attacking corps can capitalize on. This approach can reap rewards, but it also requires a much more disciplined defense to make the gambles up top worth it. San Jose is scoring goals, yes, but not generating as many quality chances as would be necessary to make the risk of getting exposed on the counterattack worth it.

“We have seen that we can possess the ball and create chances, but the individual mistakes we do every game are awful, and you can’t win a game like this,” Jungwirth said. “So if we prevent those easy mistakes, then we can beat a lot of teams, but if we continue like this, there will be no chance to get points, because you can’t score three or four goals every game.”

The Timbers arrive at Avaya Stadium on a good run of form, and reigning MLS MVP Diego Valeri is the mastermind behind the team’s tactical approach. The Quakes will need to be prepared to lock down the Argentine playmaker both in possession and in transition, something the team has been working on a training all this week. In San Jose’s last home game, a 2-2 tie against the Houston Dynamo, the team was too passive in those midfield spaces.

“The game against Houston was our worst game so far, and we have to be better than that,” Stahre said. “We are working at a professional level where we know it is all about results, so if we continue with these small adjustments, we can get there. Now, if we can perform better, hopefully the results will be better too.”

For Yueill, who started as a central midfielder against the Crew and is in line to do so again against the Timbers, he sees the urgency in his fellow teammates to train harder and be smarter on the field. He is encouraged by the effort on the training ground and is hopeful that will translate into the workrate against Portland Saturday night.

“We’ve been talking about different positioning and where to stand and how to move and create more options for me to get on the ball as well as Anibal [Godoy],” Yueill said. “As a team, we are trying to work defensively in moving together and keeping our shape. Individually, the coaches have helped us see what we can do better and went worked before. We take that to the training pitch and hopefully get better each game we play.

“Against the Timbers, we need to keep doing what we are doing and minimize our mistakes on the ball so we don’t give up easy turnovers that lead to them scoring goals. And we need to come out with enthusiasm and a sense of urgency, but also that patience as well. We need to calm down and make sure we are creating more scoring opportunities.”

The game against Portland marks the first of three games against Western Conference opponents, and the Quakes need results to avoid falling even further down the table. It is too early in the season to call the game this Saturday a must-win, but with road trips to Minnesota and Vancouver next week, San Jose needs to earn some momentum heading into a pivotal part of the schedule.

“Obviously, the games are more important when you play against the West, so for me, it has to be game by game and deal with what is coming this Saturday,” Stahre said. “We will train for this game like it was any game at a high level and preparation. I have a good feeling, actually, especially after the game in Columbus, that there are better intentions in the team.”

Match Information:

When: May 5, 7:30 p.m. Pacific Time

Where: Avaya Stadium, San Jose, CA

Broadcast: NBC Sports Bay Area, KNBR 1050

Live Stream: ESPN+

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