The San Jose Earthquakes won yet another game this season very late on Sunday, but the tactics in their first playoff match against the LA Galaxy were fascinating. No, they weren't innovative or exciting, but both sides struggled to get the first goal, and it was easy to see why from a tactical standpoint.
For the Galaxy, the match against San Jose came at a bad time considering the roster. The disadvantage of playing in the Western Conference wild card game was not only a conference semifinal against top seeded San Jose, but also doing it with just two days of rest. The good news for them was that they advanced from the wild card game, and that they have a roster chock full of experience, both in MLS and abroad. The bad news is that they looked obviously tired for most of the match and could not find a breakthrough despite holding much more possession than the Quakes. David Beckham, a hobbled Landon Donovan, and Robbie Keane may have been on the field, but they didn't make the same impact as in their previous game against the Vancouver Whitecaps.
Likely as a result of their fatigue, the Galaxy could not deviate from a set tactical pattern. Although the Galaxy has not been known for playing with width, they obviously use crosses from the flanks as a major component in their attack. Usually, they mix it up with play through the middle, short passing sequences, and long balls over opposing defenses. But probably as a result of their tired legs, they continually sent cross after cross from just outside the box. The problem was that San Jose not only knew what was coming from the Galaxy attack in the second half, they dealt with the crosses easily.
In fact, the best chance the Galaxy had in the second half came when they changed their approach. Landon Donovan was near the top of the box when he laid the ball off for Robbie Keane, and Keane's shot in the 86th minute beat Jon Busch, but bounced off the crossbar. Since the Quakes' defenders were dealing with crosses without issue, they were unprepared for a shot through the middle, and nearly fell behind as a result.
That San Jose actually won the game looked pretty unlikely from a tactical standpoint. Although the Galaxy's attack was completely predictable, they did a good job keeping the ball away from San Jose in the final third, and what was fascinating about San Jose's tactics was the extent to which they conceded possession. Yes, they have a reputation of getting late winners, and certainly Victor Bernardez's free kick to win the match wasn't predictable, but was plausible, as he's scored on similar free kicks this season. But a game plan in which they allow their opponent to hold onto the ball for long periods and cannot get any of their forwards touches in the final third isn't typically a recipe for success.
Looking ahead, it will be interesting to see how each team adjusts tactically. Obviously, there will be adjustments both due to injuries and because of the change of venue to Buck Shaw Stadium. The Galaxy will also have to open up and push for a goal because of the series deficit, while the Earthquakes have the luxury of putting their defensive duties first, at least until the Galaxy get a goal. What's more, both sides will be playing on short rest.
But if LA wants to advance to the next round, they are going to have to mix up their approach and play both through the middle and out wide. Playing through one channel will probably only help San Jose keep their advantage in the series. And if the Earthquakes really want to ice the series and move on, they will need to do a better job of keeping the ball and getting into the final third to get Chris Wondolowski, Steven Lenhart, and Alan Gordon involved. The Quakes certainly have the upper hand, but the tactical battle has yet to get going, and if either team takes an edge there, it could be the difference in the series.