Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Quakes and FC Dallas jostle for playoff spot
Major League Soccer's Western Conference has certainly lived up to the moniker "wild wild West." With just one month left in the regular season, every side still has a shot at making the playoffs, and while last weekend's results saw some teams solidify their hold on a postseason spot, nothing has been decided yet.
Arturo Alvarez has added explosiveness to the San Jose attack. (Sara Wolfram/GettyImages)
That means this week's edition of "MLS Primetime Thursday" (9 p.m. ET) is absolutely critical in determining which teams will survive the Western Conference mosh pit. The San Jose Earthquakes, whose revamped attack has put them back in the playoff hunt, will take on an FC Dallas team that has hit its stride at the best possible time.
Yet at present, both sides find themselves residing outside of the playoff places, meaning each team will be desperate to walk away with a win on Thursday at Pizza Hut Park.
Five story lines to follow1. Dallas makes its playoff push
When the Hoops last appeared on "Primetime Thursday," a 1-0 home loss to Colorado appeared to deliver a mortal blow to their postseason hopes. But Dallas proceeded to go on a three-game unbeaten streak, with four points earned on the road. Despite this run, FCD still sits in fifth place in the conference standings, meaning more work needs to be done. But head coach Schellas Hyndman likes what he sees from his team.
San Jose at Dallas 9 p.m. ET (ESPN2, ESPN360.com)
"I think a big part of our success is the players are understanding their roles, as well as the structure of the team both defensively and offensively," said Hyndman. "And we've added the third element into our game, which is our play in transition."
2. San Jose rebounds, then stumbles
Back in July, the Quakes were dead and buried, but a nine-game unbeaten streak got them back in the thick of things. That is until Saturday's 3-2 home loss to Real Salt Lake, one that dealt a heavy blow to their playoff hopes. Now the Quakes, who are five points back of fourth-place RSL, need to get a win on the road, something they haven't done since a 2-0 win over Columbus on June 7. Manager Frank Yallop is refusing to panic, however."One bad result by us doesn't mean it's over," said Yallop. "We've got to go to Dallas and try to get a win, and if we do, we're right back in the hunt."
3. Decisions, decisions
Dallas' 3-0 win over D.C. United last Sunday marked just the second time all season it had used the same lineup in consecutive games. But with defender Duilio Davino set to return from injury, Hyndman has a dilemma on his hands. Does he find room for his captain and sit a player like Aaron Pitchkolan, or does he stick with what has worked?
"We're still contemplating that," said Hyndman of bringing in Davino. "But I think we'll probably lean more towards bringing Davino in because of the experience he brings."
4. San Jose's offensive awakening
Thanks to a midseason attacking makeover, the Quakes have gone from the league's most inept offensive outfit to one of the more dangerous. English import Darren Huckerby has grabbed most of the headlines with his six goals and four assists, but he's had plenty of help. Former FCD attacker Arturo Alvarez has contributed three goals of his own, while ex-Kansas City forward Scott Sealy has helped San Jose keep possession with some valuable hold-up play.
"For us it was always going to be a slow process," said Yallop of forming his attack. "From where we started to where we're at now, we've done well as a unit. Now, each game we feel confident we can get a result. We're not scared of anybody."
5. Will Dallas burn the Quakes with its pace?
One key aspect of Thursday's match will be how San Jose deals with Dallas forwards Jeff Cunningham and Kenny Cooper. The Quakes didn't cope well against the pace and power of RSL striker Yura Movsisyan, whose ability to latch onto long balls over the top saw him score two goals. Given Cunningham's speed and Cooper's strength, Thursday's result will likely hinge on San Jose's ability to keep the Dallas duo at bay.Five players to watch1. Darren Huckerby, M, San Jose
Despite playing his first MLS game on July 19, Huckerby looks poised to win the MLS Newcomer of the Year award. The Englishman has certainly endeared himself to San Jose fans with his goals, but his relentless attacking style has won plenty of admirers as well."Darren brings a real forcefulness in the way he plays and the way he approaches the game," said Yallop. "For me, he's the most exciting player that I've worked with in that he gets the ball and just goes straight at you."
2. Andre Rocha, M, FC Dallas
The one player who could edge out Huckerby for the newcomer of the year award is Rocha, who appears to have found a home on the right side of Dallas' midfield. The Brazilian has scored three goals while adding eight assists, yet spent some time in Hyndman's doghouse last month after publicly voicing his frustration over being subbed out of games. Some choice words from Hyndman in Portuguese, not to mention a one-game benching, now have Rocha back on track.
"Rocha is your typical 'Brasileiro' who loves to play with the ball, and who doesn't like to play without the ball," said Hyndman with a chuckle. "But he understands much better what I'm looking for from him, and he's producing. I just have to keep reminding him that when he turns the ball over, to do it in the attacking third of the field and not the defending third."
3. Arturo Alvarez, F, San Jose
When Hyndman took over the FCD reins back in June, he soon realized his plans didn't include Alvarez, whom he traded back to the team that drafted him in 2003. Alvarez has since bolstered San Jose's attack, and his cheeky back heel that led to Huckerby's second goal on Saturday shows he's as adept at setting up goals as he is scoring them.
Afterward Alvarez insisted that the Dallas match "will be just another game," but you can bet that he'd like nothing better than to score against his old club.
4. Jeff Cunningham, F, FC Dallas
MLS' resident gypsy has done plenty to augment Dallas' attack, scoring five goals in seven games. Yet what is downright shocking is the way Cunningham has fit into the team since arriving in a trade with Toronto. The FCD forward has long been considered a locker room cancer, yet Hyndman went to great lengths to laud Cunningham's overall play and team-first attitude."We could not have added a better player -- even if I looked at an international level player -- for the production we've gotten," said Hyndman of Cunningham. "And he's been a true professional, a true gentleman, and he's worked hard for the sake of the team. I've even had to have a conversation with him to be more selfish."
5. Nick Garcia, D, San Jose
Garcia is one of those players whom home supporters love, and opposing fans love to hate, with his physical play often testing the patience of opposition forwards as well. If the Quakes' defender can turn the match into a bit of a street fight, then advantage San Jose. Otherwise, it could be a long night for the Quakes' defense.Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.