The first explanation is: they got lucky.
On the other end of things, San Jose produced just 1 goal on 1.92 expected goals, *underperforming* expectation by 0.92 goals. Again, you could say their finishing was poor. But if you were watching the game, you probably would argue that San Jose was unlucky. The Earthquakes had four shots that looked ticket for the back of the net ... in just the first half. In the 4th minute, Chris Wondolowski took the ball with a spin and put a slowly-rolling finesse shot into the far right corner, only to see it *toink* off the woodwork and back out again.
In the 20th minute, there was Judson's lightning bolt that (again!) struck the right post. In the 26th minute, Wondolowski had a long cross fall to his outstretched shin, just 6 yards from goal, but the ball channelled the ghost of some surely museum-dwelling Brazuca from the 2014 World Cup match against Belgium and blasted over the bar. Wondo would miss one more chance in the 35th, just wide and right.
All four of those could have been goals - two of them certainly should have been goals. As the fates would have it, none of them did. The Rapids dodged a bullet. Sometimes it happens like that.
But that's only half the story. To be in close contention against San Jose at all, you've got to have a plan.
That's because Matias Almeyda and the San Jose Earthquakes are the only team in North America that play a much ballyhooed defensive system known as man-marking. With the exception of a lone unguarded opposing centerback, the Quakes play man-to-man defense all over the pitch against their opponents, a system totally unheard of in MLS until this year. The guys at the Extratime podcast/video program made the smart point a few months back that it's not so much that this system is revolutionary or unbeatable so much as it's a giant screwball for MLS teams to deal with. They finish their Saturday game, take Sunday off, come into watch tape on Monday, train against a scout team employing man marking for three days, and then they've got to beat a team that has trotted out this defense everyday for the past six months. There's no time to adjust, and SJ exploits that unpreparedness.
Colorado came prepared. First, Conor Casey started the best lineup possible against San Jose - not a ping-ping-ping passing and possession bunch of Hudson acolytes, but rather a dribble-you, nutmeg-you, burn-right-past-you bunch of swashbucklers. Sam Nicholson on the right, Andre Shinyashiki on the left, and clearly the two had instructions to dribble their men, Tommy Thompson and Jose Lima, to death. Colorado went 9 for 26 on dribbles against San Jose. The week before against Montreal, Colorado had 18. The week before that was against San Jose. They had... 26 dribbles. The week before that against NYCFC, they had... 18 dribbles.
In other words, the plan was to put it on the ground, dribble past your man, force San Jose to get help from someone else, and exploit the imbalances. Here's four great examples of that:
Other Rapids beat their defenders with the moves shown above. There was Sam Nicholson burning, dragging, and muscling past his guy every chance he got. (Note: on the above gif, it was actually Jackson Yueill he beat, not Tommy Thompson. Oops!) That forced Diego Rubio's defender to shift over and help out, leaving Rubio open.
The other methods utilized above include the two-man give-and-go and the screen play. That last one is probably less about 'a play' so much as the culmination of trying to run an exhausting man-marking all over the field system at 5280' of altitude. I suspect Vako AKA Valeri Qazaishvili was a bit low on energy and tried to conserve a little, not realizing that his team needed him to get back and mark wide-open Diego Rubio.
Which leads to a different point on man-marking: it really requires everyone to give their full effort, all of the time. One weak link, and the whole system falls apart. Which makes Matias Almeyda's accomplishment in transforming the formerly bottom-dwelling Quakes of 2018 into the playoff-bound Quakes of 2019 all the more impressive. Last year's San Jose team had nearly the same lineup as this year's team, but compiled an awful 4-21-9 record. This year's team is 11-8-5.
Tactics, and coaching, wins games. Just imagine if Colorado had produced the same degree of turnaround without any significant change in personnel. And by that I mean, imagine a world where we never hired a head-strong and tactically challenged coach with a thin portfolio with teams in Oceania and the Arabian Peninsula.
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