MLS Playoffs: Can San Jose break down Whitecaps wall?

The Vancouver Whitecaps face the San Jose Earthquakes in the MLS Cup Playoffs knockout round on Wednesday. Here’s what to expect.

After a disastrous home loss to Portland on Decision Day, the Vancouver Whitecaps were pushed all the way out of the playoff bye spots and now have to face the San Jose Earthquakes on Wednesday at BC Place, three days after San Jose narrowly made the playoffs thanks to a last-second Marco Urena winner. These two played to a 1-1 draw two weeks ago in a compelling attack vs. defense matchup. Expect more of the same on Wednesday night.


Vancouver Whitecaps:

They’ll call it a 4-2-3-1, but the Whitecaps will play a narrow 4-4-1-1 with every intention of countering through Peruvian international Yordy Reyna and striker Fredy Montero, flanked occasionally by wingers Cristian Techera and Brek Shea (or maybe Christian Bolanos or Alphonso Davies). Aly Ghazal will anchor the midfield next to No. 8 Tony Tchani, a ground-covering, ball-winning workhorse. Jordan Harvey and Rookie of the Year darkhorse Jake Nerwinski will be the full-backs outside of tall bricks Kendall Waston and Tony Parker. Stefan Marinovic in goal is the shot-stopper of all shot-stoppers.

San Jose Earthquakes:

No joke, this is a Brazil 1954-style 4-2-4, with a true channel-running, shoot-at-first-touch No. 9 (Danny Hoesen) and goal-poaching second striker playing behind him (Chris Wondolowski). They’ve got inverted attacking wingers (Jahmir Hyka and Vako Qazaishvili) who will move all over the place, dribble a lot, take on defenders and maybe even play a little bit of defense.

Anibal Godoy and Darwin Ceren are duel No. 6s, two tough CONCACAF grinders with the ability to lock things down centrally. Florian Jungwirth, paired with Victor Bernardez at center-back, is huge for them, acting as an athletic fire extinguisher and passer from the back. Kofi Sarkodie and Shea Salinas are replacement-level full-backs, and goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell has also shown replacement-level tendencies.

How the Whitecaps will play

We’ve all become familiar by now: the Caps will condense the field as much as possible and aim to clog the passing lanes with a tall, ball-stopping spine and then run on the counter with Yordy Reyna, who runs as fast with the ball at his feet as any player in MLS. They’ll hope to, at some point, have Reyna actually succeed in beating four defenders by himself, or, more likely, score on a set piece, which they’ve done 15 times this season.

They’re extremely averse to having to touch the ball for extended periods of time, and the basic statistics reflect it. They’ve kept the least amount of possession in the league, by far, they have the worst passing percentage (73.9 percent, which is horrid), and they’re last in total passes per game. They’re third in inaccurate long balls per game, though.

To beat them, you have to figure out a way to break down their wall. They dare you put in a ton of crosses, and this map of their defensive clearances from Oct. 1 shows that well:

That’s a lot of purple triangles in the 18-yard box. This team is a puzzle to solve.

Reyna is good, though, and a great fit for this team. He plays as an attacking midfielder (he has some passing touch, although he doesn’t get to show it a lot) and excels when he has a ton of space to run into and try to score quick end-to-end goals. Techera can be a slimy player and Montero can score occasionally but Reyna is pretty much by himself in this attack until Davies comes on. He’s up to the task.

How the Earthquakes will play

San Jose have become pros at missing a bunch of chances, giving up goals against the run of play and then imploding in the last 25 minutes and losing 4-0. That’s why their goal differential is minus-21, the worst of all time for a playoff team.

In crucial matches in the last couple of weeks, though, they’ve gotten away from that, including a 1-1 draw at Vancouver on Oct. 15. The Quakes have started to close games and score late goals, which should make their fans confident that they’ll show up for this road knockout round match.

Against the Caps two weeks ago, they spent most of the game on the attack, finishing with almost 60 percent possession and firing 19 shots on Marinovic, just five of them on target. More of the same is likely on Wednesday.

They’ll try and possess the ball and push numbers into the attack, with the wingers moving in and out of various channels and half-spaces and the full-backs (particularly Salinas) bombing forward constantly. It may not be RSL-type combination play but they do a ton of stuff in the final third.

The other big storyline for this team is the second-year keeper Tarbell, who won the job from David Bingham months ago and has been a favorite of Chris Leitch. He makes too many shot-stopping errors and is pretty much incapable of doing something productive when he has to come off his line, but he’s shown flashes, and has been steadier over last couple of weeks. His hands are strong, he’s athletic and he can touch the ball without handing it directly to the other team, so he just might develop into a legit starter.

For now, he’s Leitch’s pet project and they need him to step up big time on Wednesday.

What to expect

The Quakes will spend a ton of time in the attacking half trying to figure out how to break through and then scramble when Reyna starts sprinting with acres of turf ahead. Both Ceren and Godoy will pick up yellow cards and Waston and Parker will win a lot of aerial duels. There’s not a whole lot else to say besides that.

Prediction: Do I have to do this? I’ll go with 3-1 Vancouver. It’ll be cagey for a while until Vancouver score a winner and then things delve into complete chaos, with Reyna sealing a Caps win late on. Tarbell will drop a cross in his own six-yard box and Jungwirth will swipe it clear. A lot of players will go down injured. The Unimas commentators will make utter fools of themselves. Standard late night MLS.