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After crashing out of U.S. Open Cup, what’s next for San Jose Earthquakes?

Jun 6, 2018; Portland , OR, USA; Portland Timbers midfielder Renzo Zambrano (40) steals the ball away from San Jose Earthquakes forward Quincy Amarikwa (25) during the second half at Providence Park. The Timbers won 2-0. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

SAN JOSE, Calif. — In keeping with their form in league play, the San Jose Earthquakes bowed out of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup last night 2-0 to the Portland Timbers. The Earthquakes managed to take one shot on goal the entire evening, as former Quakes Academy goalkeeper Kendall McIntosh, between the posts for the hosts, was rarely called into action.

With two tough home games coming up on the calendar, the Quakes will need to put their Open Cup loss in the rear view mirror and turn their attention to preparing for the weekend. Here are three thoughts on what San Jose did learn in Portland that may help moving forward.

Defensive consistency is still a challenge

On the whole, the Quakes defense had a decent night. Jimmy Ockford, who has worked his way into the first team starting XI, and Francois Affolter, a serviceable backup at centerback, paired up nicely in the middle of the back four. Joel Qwiberg, who recently completed a one-game loan assignment at USL affiliate Reno 1868 FC, and Kevin Partida, a regular on that Reno squad, both did enough at full back to limit Portland’s attacking corps.

But the midfield, set up in a diamond formation much as it was against the Chicago Fire last weekend, was absent for most of the game. Fatai Alashe got the starting assignment, but it was his giveaway in the first half that gifted the Timbers a 1-0 lead, an advantage they took into the locker room at intermission.

“I felt in the first half it was a really good game,” Earthquakes head coach Mikael Stahre said. “It was a nil-nil feeling in the first half. We made a crazy mistake in the middle of the field and they scored 1-0. Even though Portland possessed the ball well and controlled the game, I thought there were hardly any chances on goal.”

Perhaps Stahre was referring to the Earthquakes’ lack of scoring chances, as Jahmir Hyka had the only registered shot on goal in the entire game for San Jose in the first 45 minutes. The Quakes’ efforts to build possession in the defensive third and use their full backs to advance the ball along the sidelines never really materialized, and it was only the occasional run from Qwiberg or Partida that seemed to trouble the Timbers in any way.

“I think they held most of the possession,” said Partida, earning his first minutes with the Earthquakes, “but despite that we felt comfortable because we were compact.”

It was a cagey performance that invited pressure from the Portland midfield, and Timbers defensive midfielder mainstay Diego Chara obliged as he dictated the pace of the game. As a result, the hosts looked much more dangerous on offense in the first half, as San Jose sat back in its defensive formation.

Need for speed

The Quakes have some quick players on the roster — forward Danny Hoesen and defender Nick Lima come immediately to mind — but no one on the field to start the game in Portland possessed the breakaway speed necessary to pin the Timbers back in their own half during the first stanza.

Following halftime, Stahre adjusted the formation to a more 4-4-2 look, with Jackson Yueill dropping further back to assist Alashe, and the Quakes employed more pressure on the ball in the center part of the field. It paid dividends, and for the first time in the game, San Jose looked like it might threaten for a goal.

“In the second half, I thought we pressed higher and we provoked the opponent more,” Stahre said. “We created at least three or four really good chances in the second half.”

The strategy was working in terms of helping the Quakes come closer to an equalizer, and it made up for the lack of speed necessary to employ a more counterattacking style. San Jose never looked closer to getting back into the game than in those minutes coming after intermission.

But the team’s pace problem came back to haunt them on Portland’s second goal of the evening. With the Earthquakes up for a corner kick, leaving few behind the ball to defend on a turnover, the Timbers struck. A quick clearance got the ball into midfield, and then it was off to the races for the hosts. Quakes players did their best to recover, but their runs were too little too late, and Dairon Asprilla slotted home a shot off a feed from Chara to extend the Timbers lead to 2-0.

Players for promotion

The Open Cup is often fertile ground for coaches to try out new tactics, new formations and new players. For the Quakes, getting to see what Partida could do at right back was especially valuable, as the squad’s depth at the wide positions is minimal. Partida impressed in preseason training camp following his selection in the MLS SuperDraft, but not enough to get a first team contract, so he signed with Reno. He was excited for the opportunity to show what he could do for the Black and Blue.

“It felt great to get my first minutes with San Jose,” Partida said, “and it was also a great stadium atmosphere to make my debut. I thought we looked solid and I think we were unfortunate on both of the goals we gave up, but there’s plenty of upside.”

While Partida is not a player in the Quakes immediate plans, Qwiberg is, and having the opportunity to give him a full game was very important. With regular left back Shea Salinas out with a hamstring strain, Stahre will need to look at other options on that side of his defensive line. Florian Jungwirth, more suited as a central player, has seen time there, as has midfielder Chris Wehan, but Qwiberg remains the only true left back available for the near future.

“I am working hard every training so that I can help the team,” Qwiberg said. “Now is when I need to keep my head up and be ready for the opportunity.”

The Quakes return from Portland, their Open Cup adventure completed, in desperate need of finding a win in league play. San Jose has earned three points only once this season at Avaya Stadium, and in 13 total games has yet to shut out an opponent. They’ll have to deal with a potent Los Angeles FC side on Saturday, though one that has seen its roster shrink due to international absences, before welcoming Eastern Conference contender New England Revolution next Wednesday. Anything short of two wins, and the Earthquakes’ postseason aspirations will officially go on life support.

“We have two extremely important league games now,” Stahre said. “We are close, but we’re obviously not good enough. We have to win now, with two extremely important games at home, first against LAFC and then the New England Revolution. It will be super important for us to bring back the confidence and show the fans and ownership and everyone that we’re proud to play for the club and show the qualities in order to win.”

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