The early wake-up call/long wait for Chicago’s opening match of the MLS is Back tournament was well worth it.
A revenge win against the reigning champs, three points to start group play and a game-winning goal from a new signing…who…wait for it….is a homegrown product.
(Cue the “He’s one of our own” chants from Section 8...)
It seemed like a dream, right?
Having only played one game and earning all three points, Chicago is in the best position to win Group B as they square off against the San Jose Earthquakes on Sunday night at 7 pm CT on FS1 and TUDN.
8 ON THE RICHTER SCALE
The Earthquakes played in the most entertaining match to date in the tournament on Wednesday, as they erased a two-goal deficit against the Vancouver Whitecaps and scored three unanswered in the second half to escape with all three points and jump into first place in Group B with a 4-3 win.
After Ali Adnan gave Vancouver a 1-0 lead, a giveaway on one end of the field from San Jose’s Judson led to a counter-attack the other way that should’ve been a clean, easy finish while Vancouver had a two vs. none. Instead, Judson sprinted all the way back to intercept the pass to a wide-open Cristian Dájome but ended up putting the ball in the back of his own net.
Andres Rios gave the Quakes a bit of hope before the halftime whistle with an obscene backheel deflected goal taken on the volley from a corner. After the break, San Jose 'keeper Daniel Vega gifted the goal back when he lost the ball in his own penalty area and Dájome promptly punished the veteran to make it 3-1.
Then, all of a sudden, right around the time Chris Wondolowski came on, San Jose started to scratch and claw their way back. A goal from Wondo nine minutes after he subbed on, an equalizer from Oswaldo Alanis off a corner, and some fortuitous bounces then led to the game-winner from Shea Salinas in the eighth minute of stoppage time.
Exhausted reading this? You should be. Now imagine how emotionally and physically drained San Jose must be. A comeback of that nature takes everything out of the tank and then some.
A match of that magnitude played by the Quakes on Wednesday night will have its effects and I expect to see some of them on Sunday night.
MAN TO MAN TO MAN TO MAN….
If you don’t already know, San Jose employs a rarely-seen tactic when defending. All over the field, like in basketball or a defensive scheme in American Football, the Quakes will line up man to man. San Jose midfielders will track you every step of the way. If you make a 40-yard run out of the midfield, your mark is there. If you start to creep up as the outside back or wingback, your mark is there. If you go to the bathroom at halftime, your mark is probably there. OK, maybe not to that extent.
This system turns the game into a physical spectacle. It also places a lot of emphasis on one-on-one battles and the attacking team being brave in possession. We saw that from Vancouver in the first half in addition to some giveaways that I’m sure will not be so plentiful come Sunday night.
The two biggest takeaways from San Jose’s first two games and trying to break down this defensive set up are these: win second balls and be brave.
Winning one-on-one battles in the middle of the field was a huge key to Vancouver’s early success on Wednesday night. They were constantly first to the ball and winning 50/50s. These second balls are crucial to try and beat the initial marking defender because once this player is beat, the dominos start to fall and there will always be someone open given the lack of cover and balance in this style of defense.
Being brave is something that every coach says to every team before every match. I think it applies even more so when a team lines up like San Jose. It sends a message that essentially says, “Our guys are better than yours individually and we’ll prove it.” If I were playing, I’d take it as a challenge. Hence the bravery. The Fire will find themselves in one-on-one situations much like we saw in Robert Berić’s goal vs. Seattle and they’ll need to run at their mark and be brave in the attacking third.
As we saw against Seattle a few times (especially on Berić’s goal), Chicago is set up nicely to counter on any team but particularly San Jose. Playing with two forwards naturally creates more problems for the opposition than playing with just one. San Jose, given their need to be as close to their mark as possible, commit a ton of numbers forward and one mistake can lead to a counter-attack of epic proportions (i.e. Vancouver’s second goal).
The two outside backs for San Jose in Nick Lima and Tommy Thompson are not afraid to push high and join in on the attack. This leaves a two-on-two situation with Berić and Sapong against San Jose’s two center-backs. I will take this matchup all day and all night. I think Matias Almeyda will have a game plan for this, but the space and numerical advantages will be there. Chicago will have to be quick and efficient in this effort. We saw it in flashes against Seattle and it is only going to improve in time.
Chicago are feeling the Disney magic after the late 2-1 win against Seattle. San Jose are also feeling some type of way after their bonkers 4-3 win against Vancouver.
It is a battle for the top of Group B and the winner is guaranteed a spot in the knockout round. If San Jose win, they would officially win the group and second place would be decided in the final two games: Chicago vs. Vancouver and Seattle vs. Vancouver. If Chicago win, they would be on six points and group winners with a game in hand. Monumental implications to say the least and this one is set to be an absolute dog fight.
The Fire got their three points on Tuesday, but it was their first game back in more than four months in a new system. There is still a lot of room for growth for all teams involved and mistakes inherently come with that growth. It’ll be about who can minimize those mistakes and capitalize on the opposition’s errors. Whoever can do that in this matchup on Sunday will find their way into the round of 16 as the Group B winner. This is what tournament play is all about. I’m beyond pumped to see how Raphael Wicky gets his guys to respond in such a big moment following such a big win against such a unique opponent.