When San Jose Earthquakes manager Matías Almeyda arrived in the Bay Area ahead of the 2019 season, his reputation preceded him. He had just been named the 2018 Concacaf Men’s Football Coach of the Year while with Guadalajara after his side won the 2018 Concacaf Champions League. This was on top of winning the Liga MX Clausura in 2017.
Almeyda’s preferred style is man-marking defense, a high-risk high-reward style of play currently unique in MLS. As the name indicates, defenders will cover an individual player instead of a zone or area, and they’ll follow this player all over the pitch. When it works, it’s an in-your-face and intimidating style that frustrates attackers who spend 90 minutes being escorted across the pitch, unable to find any space. When it doesn’t work, you can find yourself looking up the table like the Quakes have this year.
There are myriad theories why the style hasn’t worked for Almeyda and San Jose this year, but just because they’ve struggled up to this point in the season, doesn’t mean they’ll struggle the rest of the way. All it takes is one match to build confidence and create some downhill momentum. The Rapids want to continue some momentum of their own, and don’t want to kickstart a San Jose surge. Here are my keys to the game:
1. Unmark yourself.
As described above, expect San Jose to bring their man-marking defensive style to Colorado, but there are some ways to combat the tactic. First is to keep the ball in play. When play stops, the defense can reorganize, but the longer the ball is in play, and the longer the Rapids can ping it around the pitch, the higher the chance becomes for a defensive breakdown. Second comes down to individual brilliance. If one Rapids attacker can break free of his mark, it creates a difficult decision for the next defender. Does he stay with the player he’s marking or attempt to defend the ball? One man breaking free of his mark can create a cascading effect all the way down the defense, which should create ample opportunities for Rapids’ attackers.
2. Consecutive clean sheets.
The Earthquakes will enter this match tied with a Western Conference-low 17 goals scored. They haven’t scored multiple goals in a match since August 29th in a 3-2 loss to the Galaxy. And, while they’ve only been shutout twice in 2020, the Rapids defense should be feeling as confident as it has all year after two clean sheets on the road in the span of a week. This is the perfect opportunity to ride that confidence and get the home-stand off to a hot start.
3. Homegrown hot hands.
It feels like we’re talking about the youth of this Rapids team every week, but that’s because they’re earning the attention and praise with their performances. Robin Fraser picked a Starting XI with an average age of 24.9, the youngest for the team thus far in 2020, and it delivered with a clean sheet and multi-goal victory over one of the most talent-rich rosters in the league. And they did it on the road. In the last six games, Cole Bassett and Sam Vines have combined for four goals and four assists, an unprecedented level of production from Rapids Homegrowns. Add in a team-leading fourth goal of the year from 23-year-old Jonathan Lewis against the Galaxy, the youth is really leading the way. They’re young, but they’re growing into the professionals they’re going to be right before our eyes.