In the amazing world of MLS, a team is able to go winless for 13 games, but still consider themselves in the postseason hunt. The parity of the league ensures that, but it is certainly helped along by the fact that the MLS Cup playoffs will be contested among 10 of the league’s 18 teams. Simple math tells us that even a team that finishes with a losing record could potentially hoist the championship trophy come late November.
When MLS Commissioner Don Garber made the announcement at last year’s final in Toronto that the playoffs would expand, he laid the framework for another late season free-for-all for teams staking claims on the four wildcard postseason spots up for grabs. After a 2009 season, when the playoff participants were not known until the final weekend, and teams were eliminated using the tiebreaker system, last season saw the 8 playoff entrants determined with nearly a month to go on the schedule. With the way 2011 is shaping up, where all 18 teams still mathematically eligible for the postseason, a return to the excitement of 2009 seems almost assured by Garber’s plan. And in the thick of that wildcard chase are the San Jose Earthquakes.
After securing all three points last weekend in a home match against the Chicago Fire, the team trained this week with a renewed sense that good things could still happen in 2011. To say it’s laughable that a team that didn’t see a win in a baker’s dozen matches would be understandable, but perhaps not fair given the league’s insistence on weighing the value of the postseason over the regular season. MLS, like most of the other top professional sports leagues in the United States, follows the doctrine that the championship is determined not by a long period of sustained success, but by a team getting hot at just the right time to make a quick run of good results. Just look back to last season’s Earthquakes as an example of a team that did well enough to make the postseason, and then overachieved when they got there.
With the victory over the Fire, the Quakes pulled to within 5 points of the final wildcard spot — a measly figure that conceivably could be made up within two matches — and now can press ahead knowing a late season surge will see them in the postseason. The next two matches, both on the road, are against opponents that are in the same boat as the Earthquakes — on the fringe of a postseason berth. Starting with a game tonight against the Houston Dynamo and Wednesday against the Portland Timbers, San Jose essentially has two "six-pointers" on their schedule. Find victory, and the 3 points they earn will be 3 points the opponent does not; lose and the opposite occurs — the net being either a "6 point" upswing or a "6 point" decline.
With that in mind, and given head coach Frank Yallop’s propensity to start the same eleven players from a prior week’s winning team, what follows is a look at the line-up that should take the field tonight in Houston to face the Dynamo:
Chris Wondolowski Khari Stephenson
Simon Dawkins Joey Gjertsen
Sam Cronin Rafael Baca
Ramiro Corrales Bobby Burling Nana Attakora Steven Beitashour
One big change for the starting XI versus the Chicago Fire comes on the back line, as Hernandez is still dealing with a quad strain and is unlikely to play ahead of Wednesday’s match at Portland. Another note comes from the exclusion of Bobby Convey from the line-up; despite his availability following a one game suspension served for yellow card accumulation, Dawkins did well for himself at the left wing position and stays in Yallop’s starting XI against the Dynamo. One modification to this line-up that may occur, but is unlikely, regards Brad Ring. The central midfielder is healthy are ready to play, but is likely to bow to Cronin in tonight’s contest. Ring and Convey remain good possibilities to start the midweek game at Portland instead.
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