Saturday’s Union-Earthquakes matchup at PPL Park promises to be a good one, as both teams are unbeaten in the month of April.
San Jose are one of the surprises of this young 2012 season. The Quakes currently top the Western Conference with 16 points and a 5-1-1 record.
Frank Yallop’s team is fresh off a 3-1 home win over nine-man Real Salt Lake. San Jose took the lead during stoppage time following red cards to RSL’s Fabian Espindola and Jamison Olave.
The Union are 1-2-1 all time against the Earthquakes. Sebastien Le Toux’s 76th minute penalty kick earned Philadelphia a 1-0 home shutout last April. The return leg at Buck Shaw Stadium played out to a 0-0 draw.
San Jose Attack
The Earthquakes' offense is among the best in MLS. San Jose’s 13 goals scored is the second highest total in the league.
Eight of those goals have been tallied by 2010 Golden Boot winner Chris Wondolowski. Defenses continue to focus on "Wondo," but he still finds ways to score goal at a highly impressive rate.
Wondolowski isn’t the biggest, fastest or strongest player on the field, but he positions himself better than anyone else in the league. His ability to drift in and out of the box, losing defenders in the process, makes him an extremely difficult mark. Wondolowski has scored in six of San Jose’s seven games this year and the Earthquakes are unbeaten in 2012 when he finds the back of the net.
Khari Stephenson will likely play behind Wondolowski or alternatively Steven Lenhart may play in front of Wondolowski. Stephenson was the choice for the last two games. The formation played like a 4-4-1-1 with the Jamaican international sitting in the pocket above the midfield. Stephenson is more comfortable playing a bit deeper, while Lenhart is a physical target man who will mix it up with the opponent’s center halves. Both players give Wondolowski room to run.
Former Union winger Shea Salinas suffered a broken collarbone at the hands of Rafa Marquez and will not play on Saturday. San Jose will have the services of Marvin Chavez, who returns from a one-game suspension.
Yallop can then choose between Rafael Baca, Simon Dawkins and Tressor Moreno to fill his opposite winger and attacking midfield slots. Sam Cronin is a shoe-in for the holding role.
WATCH: Union-Earthquakes preview
San Jose Defense
For all of the talk about San Jose’s offense, it’s the defense that’s most improved this year.
For starters, Steven Beitashour is quietly making a case as one of the best overlapping fullbacks in the league. The 25-year-old is tied for third in MLS with four assists this season. He will run up and down the right flank all day long and serve dangerous balls into the box.
The rest of the backline is a bit jumbled.
MLS original and longtime left back Ramiro Corrales missed the RSL game and is doubtful for Saturday with a calf strain.
The Quakes are also missing first choice center half Victor Bernardez. The Honduran is out with an MCL sprain.
Yallop re-worked the defense last week and moved Justin Morrow from center half to left back. Jason Hernandez paired Ike Opara in central defense.
While not a first-choice partnership, both Hernandez and Opara do have experience in the back. Hernandez has nearly 150 MLS appearances and Opara looked like a Rookie of the Year candidate before injuries cut short his debut year in 2010.
Jon Busch has been solid in net so far. The veteran goalkeeper has only had to deal with 22 shots this year. San Jose’s defense has not allowed opponents many clean looks on net.
Keys to the Game
Philadelphia's bid for three consecutive wins primarily comes down to containing Chris Wondolowski. As players and coaches have pointed out, it’s not just about keeping an eye on him, it's about marking him tightly and physically bodying him out of position. He’s the type of player who might disappear for 25 minutes, only to then show up and score the game-winning goal.
San Jose have more creativity on the wings and in the midfield this year. Chavez brings speed to the flank and Moreno looks like a quality pickup. Baca is more comfortable in his second year with the club.
Even though Real Salt Lake played nine versus 11 against San Jose, they held their own for a majority of the game. Kyle Beckerman’s shorthanded goal almost earned RSL an improbable road point. San Jose didn’t find the game winner until stoppage time.
The defensive injuries leave San Jose a bit stretched in the back. Opara and Hernandez could again be the center back pairing, and if Corrales is ruled out, then Morrow will likely cover at left back again. It’s a defensive shuffle begging to be tested by the Union offense.
Philadelphia’s defense is riding a 332-minute shutout streak and will need to continue the rock solid play that’s helped the club earn seven points in the last three games. Offensively, Lionard Pajoy needs help up top. With Keon Daniel and Gabriel Farfan suspended, Philadelphia's depth will be tested as the Union continue to effectively dig their way out of an early season hole.