Yes, there’s nothing like coming out of a long break in the MLS schedule and getting right back into it. For the San Jose Earthquakes, getting back into it means embarking on arguably the toughest road trip in MLS — a two game swing against Rocky Mountain rivals Colorado Rapids and Real Salt Lake. The opener will be played tonight on the eastern flank of the Continental Divide, while the finisher takes place Saturday night just a tick to the west.
Currently in second place in an increasingly difficult Western Conference, the Earthquakes will need to be at their best over the next four days if they are going to keep that position. In their last ten trips to visit Colorado and Salt Lake, San Jose are winless and boast a very unimpressive 0-5-5 record. The Earthquakes last win in the Rocky Mountains? Go all the way back to their first road game in 2008, the year the team returned to MLS, and you’ll find that the Quakes managed a 2-0 win against the Rapids.
“Yes, this is a tough road trip for us,” said head coach Frank Yallop. “Anytime you go into Colorado and Salt Lake, both places are difficult to go in and get wins. We’ve been off for a while, so we are excited to get back into action. We will look to get our season back on track this Wednesday and hopefully get some points in Colorado.”
In part due to a lack of parity when it comes to on field success for the Earthquakes as compared to their Rocky Mountain foes in recent years — both Real Salt Lake (2009) and Colorado Rapids (2010) have captured MLS Cup championships since 2008 — San Jose has not necessarily had the strength and talent to play comparably. However, team captain Ramiro Corrales sees signs that the Earthquakes can stand toe-to-toe with both of this week’s opponents.
“I think we’ve proven ourselves thus far, and have a great group of players,” said Corrales. “These are two tough games for us and will be a good challenge. If we keep doing what we’ve been doing this season we will be fine. We want to get back to getting clean sheets again because we’ve gotten away from that lately. It is always tough to go up to Colorado and Salt Lake, but we just need to take care of business.”
The good news for the Earthquakes is that nearly the entire team is healthy and available for selection this week. Of the players that would have presumably started against the Rapids, only Jon Busch is unavailable, as he sits out a one game suspension for an incident against a ball boy in the Earthquakes previous game. Back-up goalkeeper David Bingham will get the start instead, and will hope to add to his unblemished MLS record in the match against Colorado.
More good news is that MLS Golden Boot leader Chris Wondolowski is back from a stint with the U.S. Men’s national team and will likely start up top with striking partner Steven Lenhart. The two forwards together have accounted for over half of the team’s goals this season, and their interplay is important in unsettling opponents’ defensive units.
“I enjoy playing with him and he keeps me calm,” said Wondolowski. “But when the whistle blows, we go 100% and are both very intense out there. We feed off each other’s energy and off each other’s runs, making it hard on the defense and giving us better possession high up the field. Hopefully we can go out there in Colorado and get some chances and finish them.”
Worthy on note is the amount of fixture congestion that awaits the Earthquakes over the next section of the season. When MLS announced a return to an unbalanced schedule going into this season after two years of balanced play, it was changed in such a way to promote the type of schedule that will play out for the Earthquakes over the next month — starting with tonight’s match at the Colorado Rapids, San Jose will face eight straight Western Conference opponents culminating with a July 22 match away to the Vancouver Whitecaps. Not taking into account the one and possibly two U.S. Open Cup games scheduled over that time period, and the Earthquakes will be as busy as they have ever been in terms of meaningful match play.
“Sometimes you haven’t played for a while and you can come out a little rusty and a little winded,” said Yallop. “Whatever you do in practice is not the same as what you experience in a 90 minute game. I think it is important that we don’t drop our heads no matter what happens in the games — we won’t anyway — and continue on the same path that we’ve been on so far this season. We’ve been working hard for each other, creating chances to score, and defending well as a unit. We want to get back to being more ruthless with our defending and get some clean sheets. That’s important to our club. But I also want us to also enjoy ourselves going forward and continuing that form as well.”
Wednesday night at Colorado and Saturday night at Real Salt Lake — the San Jose Earthquakes will have their chance to do all of that.
(Photo: Lyndsay Radnedge, centerlinesoccer.com)