Breaking down matches before they happen is fraught with guesswork more often than not, but occasionally something surfaces ahead of kick-off that tells you exactly what is going to happen. No, this has nothing to do with getting that sure-fire tip from the trainer’s wife’s best friend’s bother-in-law’s certified public accountant. Instead, certain indisputable information makes it easy to predict the winner — or the loser.
Not wanting to sit on such information, for that would be selfish, Quake, Rattle and Goal is ready to dish on tonight’s match against Real Salt Lake. Also, it so happens, the fine folks at RSL Soapbox are also in a giving mood with their most confidential of insider knowledge. Want to know why the Quakes will win? Or, why Real Salt Lake will win? Do you still need a reason to watch tonight’s match? Keep reading and gain the answers to those questions.
Whichever dossier is correct, one thing will be true by night’s end — a team will exit the Buck Shaw Stadium pitch in first place in the MLS Western Conference and in the driver’s seat for the coveted Supporters’ Shield.
San Jose Earthquakes will win because… Buck Shaw Stadium has been a fortress for the home side going back to August of last season. The Quakes may not play in front of the biggest crowd in MLS, but they fill The Buck to capacity more often than not and provide a huge lift to the players on the field. No less than star forward Chris Wondolowski commented, almost reverentially, earlier this week about what it means to him and his teammates to finally be playing in their real home stadium after nearly two months of playing elsewhere.
"We were joking earlier that we never thought we’d be looking forward to getting back to Buck Shaw," said Wondolowski. "Palo Alto was amazing just because of the fan environment, but, dude, I like playing at Buck Shaw. It’s a good little place and our fans are loud. I miss it."
The Earthquakes haven’t played at The Buck since a May 19 match against the Columbus Crew. San Jose rescued a point late in that match and settled for a 1-1 draw with the Crew. Already once this season, the Quakes have defeated RSL at home, and if the team can repeat that feat will complete a three-game sweep of their Utah rivals. Head coach Frank Yallop is less concerned with topping RSL for a third time, and more concerned with seeing his team return to their early season form. Still, being back at Buck Shaw after an eight week break should help matters.
"We just want to make sure we are on our game," said Yallop. "We are back at Buck Shaw, finally, and we know we can play well and win. Simply, that is what we are trying to do."
A result against Real Salt Lake will push the Earthquakes unbeaten streak at The Buck to ten games. An expected sell-out crowd will be on hand, and the players will be ready to defend their turf. It wouldn’t matter what team was visiting tonight — the Earthquakes are motivated and prepared to win.
Keep reading after the jump for why the Quakes will lose and why you shouldn't miss this match:
San Jose Earthquakes will lose because… The heart and sole of the 2012 Earthquakes will not be suited up to face RSL. While Wondolowski is the unquestioned face of the franchise, his forward partner Steven Lenhart is the engine that leads the Earthquakes offense. As was revealed at the team’s training session yesterday, Lenhart has experienced that team officials are calling concussion symptoms this week and will be indefinitely unavailable for selection by coach Yallop. Three straight matches with punishing hits to the head — starting with a blindside hit from Seattle Sounders defender Patrick Ianni in last month’s U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal at Kezar Stadium — has pushed Lenhart into a period of recovery.
All players in MLS are required to be tested for cognitive functioning in the preseason as a way to determine baseline levels of behavior and response in the event a head injury is experienced during the season. While Lenhart cleared those thresholds in testing the last two weeks, results from earlier this week showed elevated concern that a concussion had occurred.
"Having Lenny missing, it’s a huge one," said Wondolowski. "He’s just a great player and he definitely softens up defenses. Gordon’s able to step right in and he’s a great player who’s able to provide a lot of those attributes, but it’s just not the same as having both of those guys. Having Lenny go as hard as he can for 70 minutes and then having Gordon go as hard as he can for 20, that’s just a great combination to have."
Alan Gordon is expected to start alongside Wondolowski on the forward line for the second straight match, and the former Los Angeles Galaxy and Toronto FC man has set a career high for goals scored this season with six, but the Earthquakes are without a win in three tries when Lenhart does not start. Gordon provides a good complement to Wondolowski up top, but it remains to be seen whether he can lead the team to victory when thrust into the role of starter.
You don’t want to miss this match because… Each time these two teams have faced off in 2012, first place in the MLS Western Conference has been at stake. In the first two meetings this season, the Earthquakes overcame RSL in the standings with dramatic late-game match winning goals. Simon Dawkins, who has missed the Earthquakes last few matches but will be available off the bench in tonight’s contest, scored the winning goal earlier this season at The Buck in a contentious 3-1 victory. Wondolowski, safely atop the MLS scoring leaderboard provided the heroics in a stunning 2-1 win at Rio Tinto Stadium late last month.
The return to an unbalanced schedule in MLS has reinforced the importance of conference games, and the Earthquakes will want to put some distance between themselves and the pack with a win against RSL. Losing to the Utah side while not desirable, may not end up being the last meeting between these two clubs in 2012. Wondolowski, with one eye looking forward to a possible postseason meeting with RSL, offered up this interesting deal in comments made earlier this week.
"I have a feeling if both teams continue to play how they are capable of playing, we might have to run through each other again," said Wondolowski. "So, if they want to make a deal, we’ll give them this one if they give us the one in the playoffs. I’m alright with that."
Deal or no deal, tonight’s match will not be one to miss.