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San Jose Earthquakes aim to make it three-in-a-row against Real Salt Lake

Not often in the last five years — certainly not this late in the season — have the San Jose Earthquakes entered a match in a battle for first place in the MLS Western Conference. But tonight at Buck Shaw Stadium against Real Salt Lake, for the third time in as many meeting this season, that title will be on the line. Whichever of the two teams gets the win will also strengthen their credentials for the 2012 Supporters’ Shield award.

“No, I don’t get tired of them,” said head coach Frank Yallop of playing matches with so much at stake. “Here we are again, and we have a chance to get a gap between us and them and they have a chance of overtaking us. So, yes, this is a big game.”

Perhaps the biggest difference between tonight’s match-up and the previous two between the Earthquakes and RSL is that the role are reversed in terms of where the teams sit in the standings. For the first two meetings of 2012, the Earthquakes were the team looking to overcome the Western leading Utahan’s. In this season’s third contest, San Jose will instead play the role of the hunted, but that hasn’t changed their mindset in making preparations.

“There’s no difference,” said Yallop. “We’re just trying to put on a good performance and win at home. You look at the schedule and you wouldn’t necessarily pick out games you have to win because they are all for three points anyway. You can’t pick or choose when you can play well, we’ve just got to beat another good team this Saturday.”

The Earthquakes to some are fortunate to be at the top of the MLS points list, but that assessment fails to appreciate how much of a team effort San Jose has been able to sustain in reaching 11 victories by the midway point of the 2012 season. A sure sign of the team’s consistency has been that the San Jose Earthquakes are one of only two teams in MLS — the Seattle Sounders are the other — that have successfully avoided losing two league games in a row.

At Buck Shaw Stadium, going back to August of last season, the Earthquakes remain unbeaten in nine matches. A result against Real Salt Lake Saturday night will extend that streak to a perfect 10 in a row, but forward Chris Wondolowski seemed more focused in the present as to what it would mean for the team to avoid dropping 3 points to RSL.

“It would mean we were in first place in the 20th week of the season,” said Wondolowski as a matter of fact. “Real Salt Lake are a great team and to beat them 3 times is going to take a lot. But to be honest, I have a feeling if both teams play how they are capable of playing, we might have to run through each other again.”

The Earthquakes offense has been a key component to their success so far this season, but for coach Yallop, total team success comes on both sides of the ball. Even though the team has dropped points in their last two matches, the Earthquakes have put in two of their better defensive performances since a strong run of games to open the season.

“I thought we defended well against Portland (in a 2-1 loss),” said Yallop. “Overall, we didn’t give them many chances, and in the second half I thought we shut them down pretty good. And then we followed that up with a very good performance against Dallas (in a scoreless draw). We talked about it before that match, let’s try to get a clean sheet, so we were really happy to get that.”

Defensively, the Earthquakes are expected to play the same defensive back four that has featured for the team since their long June break. Steven Beitashour, Jason Hernandez, Victor Bernardez, and Justin Morrow have started the last five Earthquakes game, and especially against FC Dallas have regained the tenacity that was a hallmark for the defense in the first month of the season.

“It doesn’t matter who you are playing,” said Yallop. “You can’t pick and chooses when you play well on defense. We just want to make sure we are on our game, but Real Salt Lake are very good in possession and dangerous with numbers around the ball in the middle of the field. And, they are obviously talented around the goal.”

On the offensive side of the ball, the Earthquakes will be without forward Steven Lenhart, who it was confirmed on Friday will be unavailable due to concussion symptoms that surfaced earlier this week. The Earthquakes will promote super-substitute Alan Gordon to the role of starter for the second straight match, and the team will hope to improve upon their fortunes from what they displayed in the attacking third in last weekend’s scoreless draw at FC Dallas.

“We had chances to win that game,” said Yallop, “and normally Wondolowski has a couple good ones and should do better on. We could have gotten 3 points out of it.”

Wondolowski still leads MLS in goals scored this season, but has currently gone two matches without netting for the Earthquakes. For San Jose to keep their spot atop the Western Conference, Wondolowski, Gordon, and the rest of the Earthquakes attacking crew will need to step it up against Real Salt Lake yet again.