Quakes Youth Have Growing Pains in Philadelphia

His hand forced by injuries, Earthquakes head coach Mark Watson is finally playing the promising young players that until now have warmed the bench for the San Jose Earthquakes. After an energetic and creative display that earned a draw in Seattle, the Quakes (6-10-7) and 19 year-old phenom Tommy Thompson were unable to build on the result and fell 4-2 to the Philadelphia Union (7-9-9).

In a season defined by upheaval, the Quakes are seemingly in transition tactically and in terms of personnel. The acquisitions of creative and technical players have given fans hope that the days of aimless longballs and acquiring players based on height are on the way out. However, injuries, the most recent being a torn meniscus leading to arthroscopic surgery for Argentinian Designated Player Matías Pérez García, have left coach Mark Watson with few options and an underperforming team.

Quakes fans have longed to see Thompson on the pitch since he was announced as the Quakes’ first Homegrown Player, but recovery from arthroscopic surgery to his right knee kept him out of training until May. Offensive struggles, due in part to Wondo’s World Cup squad call-up, caused growing impatience with the longball-heaving tactics that brought a Supporter’s Shield in 2012 and mixed results in 2013, and Thompson was seen as a creative spark that could shift the Quakes into a new dynamic attacking team.

While the signing of Yannick Djaló energized the team and led to some positive results, Thompson’s absence from the 18-man squad in favor of an underperforming Steven Lenhart and subsequent loan to Sacramento Republic while Djaló and Lenhart recovered from injuries led to more fan frustrations, notably after the signing Pérez García, in which Thompson could’ve featured at striker in place of Djaló with Pérez García at right wing instead of the much-maligned Atiba Harris. His eventual debut against FC Dallas, during the embarrassing 5-0 defeat, felt more like placating a restless crowd that was chanting Thompson’s name.

With right-knee arthroscopy felling Matías Pérez García, Thompson made his first start and impressed against the Sounders, dazzling with his deft touch and combining well with Wondolowski and rookie defensive midfielder JJ Koval, who played the full 90 minutes with largely positive contributions and a solid, professional foul that earned a yellow card to deny the Sounders a counter-attack. Winger Cordell Cato also had positive moments after coming on as a sub for Shea Salinas, beating DeAndre Yedlin 1-on-1 and sending a low cross in past Stephen Frei that Wondo finished. As such, expectations were high that the Quakes’ youth could turn in another stellar performance and earn the Quakes another crucial result on the road.

Speaking as a fan, when I turned on the TV and saw Thompson, Koval and Cato (Atiba Harris was out to be with his wife, who was giving birth to their child) in the starting lineup, I was excited. As the Quakes’ future, it is imperative that they are given enough playing time to develop, and with the season’s injuries, World Cup disruptions and tactical challenges, I’m of the opinion that turning the Quakes into a dynamic attacking team with creative players who combine well is more important than wins or a playoff berth this season, as young players with potential need to be able to go out and fail as well as succeed in order to grow.

As such, when the first half kicked off and the Quakes had a good run of combination play between Thompson, Koval and Cato that led to a chance for Koval to put the Quakes ahead early, only to have the shot scuffed, I was hopeful for the rest of the game. That all turned quickly as San Jose was forced into some scrambling defense.

Tommy Thompson showed some grit in pursuing a longball and winning a free kick just outside the 18-yard box, but the resulting free kick from Shea Salinas didn’t clear the first defender, leading to a Philadelphia counter-attack where Andrew Wenger finished off a cross from Sébastien Le Toux. Not long after, Cordell Cato was dispossessed on the right wing and the Quakes’ defenders were caught in transition, with Le Toux making it 2-0.

The Quakes managed some possession after this, but their passes were mostly sideways and the pace ponderous, and when forward passes did connect with their wingers, Cato and Salinas couldn’t manage to connect with the midfield or forwards and were quickly dispossessed. Salinas soon after botched another setpiece delivery that led to a Union counter-attack that the Quakes managed to defend, but Philadelphia enjoyed a long stretch of possession before the Quakes could threaten again.

Tommy Thompson managed to start a string of possession that led to a better delivery from Salinas that a taller Cordell Cato could’ve buried, but instead bounced harmlessly out for a goal kick. JJ Koval attempted to thread a through ball in to Wondo, but it was intercepted by the Philly defence to spring yet another counter-attack, this time broken up by Jordan Stewart, only to have Cato muscled off the ball and Vincent Nogueira nearly scoring on a blast that John Busch somehow pushed up and over the crossbar. At this point, it was clear that Koval and Sam Cronin were having communication and positioning issues, as both were looking to join the offense, often ending up on the same side of the pitch and in the same general location. If not for some solid bailout defending by Jason Hernandez, Jordan Stewart and Victor Bernardez, the score could’ve easily been 4-0 at the half. However, it also could’ve been 2-1 if Wondo could’ve gotten a great Thompson through ball out of his feet and on target.

Mark Watson replaced JJ Koval with Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi at the half, and the rookie will no doubt have some lessons to absorb. The Quakes had some early chances that were blocked or saved, including an authoritative punch by newly signed Union keeper Raïs M’bolhi to clear a better free kick from Salinas. John Busch came up big with an amazing stop on a Connor Casey header off a cross from Sheanon Williams, where Busch had already jumped and had to reach down below himself to snag the ball.

The Quakes managed to get back a goal off of a Cronin half-volley blast. Let’s hope Watson doesn’t see this as a sign Cronin needs to attempt them more often, as it looked as flukey as Pierazzi’s golazo from earlier in the season. Still looking vulnerable defensively, especially on counter-attacks, Sean Francis was brought on for Ty Harden, who was decent but just couldn’t match the pace of Philadelphia’s attackers.

The Quakes fell into a period of scrambling defense, as Philadelphia’s tempo and ball-movement created plenty of opportunities. Against the run of play, a much better cross from Salinas was volleyed in by Wondolowski, bringing the Quakes level with plenty of time to find the winner. However, just minutes later, a free kick off a soft foul called on Salinas was headed in by Sheanon Williams, who just edged out Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi.

From then on, the game opened up, with each team enjoying periods of possession and attack, but, as before, the tempo of the Union was not matched by the Quakes, who looked slow, ponderous, and unable to combine effectively. Another Philadelphia counter off of a Quakes corner kick led to many poor clearance attempts by the Quakes, with Andrew Wenger completing the brace to make the score 4-2 in favor of the Union.

In the closing minutes, the Quakes resorted to probing longballs that failed to threaten the Philly defense, and the referee’s whistle sounded to end the game.

Overall, it was a disappointing game, though it was good to see Thompson, Koval and Cato get significant minutes, even if they departed with improvements to make. The Quakes as a whole need to up the tempo of their possession and work to get the midfield involved in combination play, especially with the wings.

Personally, I’d rather see Koval paired with Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi, as the Corsican defender tends to sit back more and occupy the defensive midfielder role, which would allow Koval to play box-to-box and participate in the offense more. Sam Cronin tends to play that role as well, though his decision-making and passing are not on par with the rookie.

I suppose I can’t hate on Cronin too much tonight after his goal, but his play this season has left many Quakes fans shouting his name in frustration. Cordell Cato needs to figure out how to better combine with his teammates, especially Thompson, as he tends to get isolated on the wing and dispossessed or outmuscled. Thompson had some moments, but he needs to find ways to get more involved if the run of play isn’t finding him and participate defensively.

More than anything, the Quakes need to get and stay healthy. With Clarence Goodson, Steven Lenhart, Tommy Muller, Andreas Görlitz, Yannick Djaló, and now Matías Pérez García out, Sean Francis and Victor Bernardez banged up, and Atiba Harris and Brandon Barklage underperforming, the roster is thin. The Quakes can’t afford anymore injuries, and must take these next few games as a chance to give vital experience to their young players.

Nights like this will happen, and we as fans need to be prepared for them. Seeing Thompson work his magic is much more enjoyable than the constant, aimless 50/50 balls that have featured so far. With enough playing time, let’s look to see some positive growth out of Tommy Thompson, JJ Koval and Cordell Cato.

(image courtesy of mlssoccer.com)

About Richard Saunders

Born and raised in Hartford, CT, Richard earned his B.A. English from Boston University in 2004, and transplanted to San Jose in late 2011. He is grateful for a local MLS club to root for, and became a rabid Earthquakes fan soon after his move West. When not in the office, where he works as a Technical Writer / Service NPI Engineer for a large technology corporation, you can find him hiking his favorite trails, camping in the woods and riding bikes, both mountain and road.