PORTLAND, Ore. – The San Jose Earthquakes have undergone a major turnaround this season. After finishing with a 4W-21L-9D record in 2018, the Earthquakes are 13W-15L-5D going into their final game on Sunday, with a win potentially the difference between missing or making the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs.
All of this is possible in large part due to an unorthodox defensive adjustment made by first-year head coach Matias Almeyda. The team runs a man-marking defense that has players match up one-on-one with certain players. It’s a far cry from the zonal marking that most teams employ in MLS.
“They play a very strange system,” Portland Timbers midfielder Sebastian Blanco said, ahead of Sunday’s Decision Day presented by AT&T clash against the Earthquakes (4 pm ET | ESPN; MLS LIVE on DAZN). “They play 1-v-1 whole field. Very high intensity, run a lot, and they have a lot of great players.”
The Timbers learned early on about the effectiveness of this system. The last time the teams faced off, the Earthquakes fleeced them, coming away with a 3-0 victory on April 6, their first win of the season. Portland head coach Giovanni Savarese hasn’t forgotten and was vocal early in Almeyda’s tenure about the viability of the system. Watch the highlights below:
“When we played them the first time I said, ‘Be careful, this team is going to be difficult,’” Savarese said. “Nobody believed me. Now everybody’s an expert.”
Now Portland will have their shot at revenge in a high-stakes situation, with Sunday’s match-up being a must-win for both teams. While one or both teams could still reach the playoffs without a win if other results go their way, a win on either side guarantees passage for the victor to the postseason.
The Timbers aren’t letting their previous loss in San Jose linger too much, with their focus shifting towards securing that postseason spot.
“Honestly, it was just a regular season game,” Timbers forward Jeremy Ebobisse said. “This game presents new challenges and new stakes. We’re a completely different team than we were back then. More united, more together as far as tactically as well…it’s going to be our job to prove that that was just a fluke…they perhaps deserved it on that day, but they’re not the better team than us.”
The Timbers’ focus has been on staying mobile against San Jose’s high-intensity defense. They’re aware that the moment they get stagnant is when San Jose can take advantage.
“When you play teams who are defending and marking all over the place and all over the field movement is the thing that can kill a team like that,” Portland defender Larrys Mabiala said. “Working on movement is the most important thing, to be able to just get there.”
The Timbers don’t want to get too caught up in what the other team is doing. In the end, their focus remains mostly on themselves.
“I think that once you start focusing too much on that you lose track of who you are,” Savarese said. “We need to be who we are. We need to think of ourselves first and the good things that we can do.”