With an all-too-short preseason behind them, the San Jose Earthquakes play their first meaningful game of 2014 tonight. But it is not their season opener: that is this Saturday night against Real Salt Lake. No, it is the opening game of the club's CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal matchup with Liga MX powerhouse Toluca, kickoff at 7:00 p.m. at Buck Shaw Stadium.
The Earthquakes completed their seven game preseason schedule with a pedestrian 3-4 record, though the team did win three of four to close it out. In fact, all three victories came via shutouts, though two of the games were against non-MLS competition. In Toluca, the Quakes are going to face much stiffer competition.
"It's a huge test against a very good team," said forward Chris Wondolowski. "We want to go out there and play to the best of our abilities and show what we have right now."
While the Earthquakes are still finding their sharpness, as evidenced by a spirited intrasquad scrimmage played the morning before the CCL opening match, Toluca is already in the thick of its season and arrives in San Jose brimming with confidence. The Red Devils posted a big 3-0 win against Puebla over the weekend that kept the club in second place in the league standings.
Toluca, the top seed following group stage play, is a big favorite to win this year's edition of the Champions League. Along with fellow Liga MX side Cruz Azul, currently in first place in league play, Toluca is projected to make the tournament final in what would be an all-Mexico affair. For the Quakes to have a realistic chance of advancing in the tournament, they will certainly need an emphatic victory over Toluca in tonight's game at Buck Shaw ahead of the return leg in Mexico next Wednesday.
"Looking at the dynamics of the home and away series, we need a good result to take back to Toluca," said Earthquakes head coach Mark Watson. "It's important to win the game, and the more goals you score gives you more of a cushion to take back."
San Jose has built its recent success on a strong defensive unit, including an impressive record of two goals allowed over all competitions the final eight weeks of last season. However, the team is only a season removed from scoring a club record 72 goals in 2012, and the same corps of goal producers is on the team in Wondolowski, Steven Lenhart, and Alan Gordon. All three should factor against Toluca tonight, with the first two starting and Gordon coming off the bench.
Will the Earthquakes invoke their 2012 look to open the CCL quarterfinals? Against a powerhouse like Toluca, which is very dangerous on attack, it might be prudent for the Quakes to sit back and absorb the pressure the Mexican side will bring. However, despite Watson's emphasis on defensive organization, that is not the way for San Jose.
"Toluca is a very good team," said Wondolowski, "but we are going to come out there and try to impose ourselves as best as possible. I think we are capable of doing it and we have the team to do it."
Defeating heavily favored Toluca over the two game series will be a tall order, so getting off to a good tart in the home leg will preserve the Earthquakes slim hopes of advancing to the semifinals. Watson even quipped in his weekly press conference that he hoped his team scored four goals in the opener. But all joking aside, the team will need to plan with complete concentration to avoid any lapses that could open the door for the powerful Toluca attack.
"All over the field, they are a very good team," said goalkeeper Jon Busch. "They've got quality players in every position. It's going to be a big challenge defensively to stay organized and then take our opportunities offensively."
A loss Tuesday night would not mark the end of the Earthquakes Champions League run. After all, when faced with the prospect of bowing out of the tournament last fall after suffering two straight defeats to open group play, San Jose found their footing and rallied for two shutout victories to win the group on a tiebreaker. The key change for the Quakes, besides the obvious one that they hosted the second two games after playing on the road for the first two, was utilizing a disciplined approach tactically while making it difficult for their opponents to control possession: a recipe they will use against Toluca.
"We won't be throwing everything forward," said Watson, "but we are going to come out aggressive and try to get a good win."
If all goes according to plan, the Quakes will serve up some home cooking for Toluca. Since the start of the 2012 season, San Jose has lost only one game at Buck Shaw Stadium. The team will need to keep that impressive run alive; their CCL survival all but demands it.
Projected Earthquakes Starting XI (4-4-2):
Steven Lenhart -- Chris Wondolowski
Shea Salinas -- Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi -- Sam Cronin -- Cordell Cato
Jordan Stewart -- Victor Bernardez -- Jason Hernandez -- Brandon Barklage