The San Jose Earthquakes limp into the StubHub Center this Saturday to face an LA Galaxy side that is firing on all cylinders. The forward tandem of Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan are proving to be as potent an attacking force as their designated player contracts would suggest, and centerback Omar Gonzalez looks as comfortable as can be commanding the defense.
The Galaxy's one weak spot this season had been at goalkeeper, but Bruce Arena went out a signed veteran Panamian Jaime Penedo to replace the ineffective Carlo Cudicini. The move paid immediate dividends when Penedo's Save of the Week during last weekend's 1-0 win at the Vancouver Whitecaps saved 2 points for LA and thrust the team into second place in the West.
Meanwhile, the Earthquakes, one season removed from winning the Supporters' Shield, have struggled to find any form on the road. In fact, in all competitions this year - MLS, U.S. Open Cup, CONCACAF Champions League - San Jose has but a single win. Sure, the Quakes home record is fantastic - only one loss in 2013 at Buck Shaw Stadium - but woeful road results have conspired to drop them to eighth in the table. At this point, perhaps a draw against the two-time defending MLS Cup champions would be almost as good as a win.
"We'll try to be tough to play against and tough to break down and take our chances when we get them," said interim head coach Mark Watson. "If we can come out of Saturday's game against a very tough LA Galaxy team at home, I don't think a draw is a bad result, but that is not the game plan going in."
And so, arriving at StubHub, on the heels of a 1-0 loss at C.D. Heredia in the CCL, the Earthquakes will need to find that same level of confidence that in 2012 saw them win twice at the former Home Depot Center. After all, with only 8 games left in the regular season, the importance of picking up points at every opportunity increases the sense of urgency for San Jose.
"We've been in a tough situation for awhile now," said Watson. "Every result is important for us, especially at this stage, but we don't need to add any extra fuel to the fire. All our players know what is at stake, and so to get points on Saturday would be a great result for us."
Adding to the challenge the Quakes face playing away from Buck Shaw, the team is missing a trio of frontline players due to suspensions earned in their last match at FC Dallas. Starters Victor Bernardez and Rafael Baca will sit out the California Clasico due to red card and caution accumulation respectively. Substitute Justin Morrow, who like Bernardez also received a straight red card against the Hoops, rounds out the missing bodies on Saturday.
"We'll take the group that we do have and look at our options and move forward," said Watson.
Deciding what changes to make to the starting eleven is no easy task, especially given the caliber of the Quakes opponent. While the loss of Bernardez is huge, especially given the Honduran's budding partnership with Clarence Goodson, he will be readily replaced by Jason Hernandez. The longest currently tenured Earthquake, Hernandez has proven very effective as part of San Jose's centerback rotation thus far in 2013.
The bigger absence on Saturday will be in the middle of the pitch where a gaping hole in the Earthquakes formation exists due to Baca's suspension. In tandem with Sam Cronin, Baca has provided San Jose with consistency in central midfield, and he will be very difficult to replace. In fact, it is difficult to look down the Earthquakes roster and pick just the right replacement.
"Rafa is a big loss," said Watson. "Him and Sam have created a great partnership and have a good understanding. So what we do Saturday, we are looking at a few different options."
A natural fit in central midfield would have been Mehdi Ballouchy, especially against a high-pressure team like the Galaxy, but the smooth-on-the-ball Moroccan suffered a torn ACL injury two weeks ago and has been ruled our for the remainder of the 2013 season. Since arriving in San Jose midway through last season, the 30-year old midfielder has appeared in only 11 games with 5 starts. He suffered the exact same injury last year, to the same knee, as he did this year.
"Mehdi would have been a great option, if he was healthy," said Watson. "Unfortunately, he won't be available for us."
With Ballouchy on the shelf, coach Watson may need to improvise a bit to fill out his starting eleven against the Galaxy. Hondurans Walter Martinez and Marvin Chavez could slide centrally in a pinch, either providing an offensive thrust that will need to be balanced with Cronin staying more defensive, but that might fly in the face of the Earthquakes strategy for containing the high-powered LA offense.
"Walter is definitely someone who is in the discussion," said Watson. "He has a lot of experience, a great work rate, and he is good on the ball."
Another possibility from the well-stocked cupboard of outside midfielders is Jaime Alas. The on-loan Salvadoran might be the one player on the roster that can play a similar game to what is seen week in and week out from Baca. Alas has played precious few minutes with the first team since arriving in San Jose at the end of July, but his inclusion in the lineup could be just the showcase he needs to impress the club.
Thinking along a more practical vein, a logical selection might be Brad Ring, who in a handful of appearances this season featured on defense, but whose natural position is at defensive midfielder. The insertion of Ring would allow Cronin to push further up the field when the situation demands it while not exposing the back four to the lightning-fast LA counterattack. And, when defense is needed most, Ring and Cronin can both drop back into a flat defensive midfielder line that would shield the centerbacks from the Galaxy attacking midfielders.
Does a perfect solution exist for the Earthquakes? Not really, as Baca has quietly set the bar pretty high with his solid season for San Jose. The Quakes are not looking for a shootout with the Galaxy, which suggests a more defensive minded replacement like Ring, but the team desperately needs points in their hopeful playoff chase, making Martinez an intriguing possibility.
"We'll see how things go in training and make a final decision after that," said Watson.
Whichever way Watson goes with his decision, the Quakes welcome the challenge posed by the Galaxy. And perhaps, like in their amazing stoppage time comeback victory against LA back on June 29, San Jose can shock the MLS Cup champs once again.