With the nation's attention squarely on the FIFA World Cup in Brazil, Major League Soccer just completed a two week hiatus and will resume its regularly scheduled programming this weekend. Two matches tonight, one in New Jersey and the other in Portland, get things started, but the biggest game of the weekend will be between the LA Galaxy and San Jose Earthquakes at Stanford Stadium - the California Clasico.
The Earthquakes, 13 games into their 34 game season, currently languish in eighth place in the Western Conference, 1 point behind the Galaxy, which has a game in hand on San Jose. The third through fifth place teams in the conference are all level on 22 points, so the Quakes will want to secure a result on Saturday night (kickoff at 7:30 p.m., televised on NBC Sports Network) to close some of the gap in the standings.
San Jose last played a league match on June 7 - a 1-0 loss at Toronto FC - but has played two games in the U.S. Open Cup since that defeat. Overall, the World Cup break has allowed a banged up squad plenty of time to physically rest ahead of the final two-thirds of the MLS season.
The Earthquakes player that benefited the most from the rest was Portuguese attacking midfielder Yannick Djalo. The on-loan dynamo has transformed the Quakes offense into a much more effective unit when he is on the field, but he has struggled to remain fit since his arrival in San Jose during the preseason. With the added time off over the break, and with an important match against the Galaxy on Saturday, Djalo has trained with earnest this week and head coach Mark Watson sees a high probability that he's feature in the Clasico.
"I'd say it's likely, yes," said Watson, adding, "he's a possibility. He's had a good chance to heal and continue regaining fitness. We are very hopeful he will be ready for tomorrow."
The 28-year old has made seven appearances, three of them starts, for San Jose this season, and he has scored one goal. The Benfica striker has lined up on the attacking side of the ball for the Quakes when he has managed to take the field, and against the Galaxy it is expected that he would start along with Steven Lenhart at forward.
"We want Yannick to play" said Watson. "He's shown in the time he's been here that he's a good player. He's very dynamic, and he gives us another dimension, so I don't think the games, the points, the table - anything matters, really. We want Yannick to play in our team, so all that stuff is irrelevant.
"We think we have a better chance to score goals when he's in our team, so if he's healthy, he has a very good chance of playing."
Not available for selection this weekend against LA - and perhaps for much longer - is outside midfielder Shea Salinas. Hampered with a lower abdominal muscle injury, Salinas used the World Cup break to shut down and recover; however, coach Watson on Friday did not sound confident that the winger had healed enough to make a California Clasico appearance.
"He has had a problem for a long time that he has been playing through," said Watson. "This break gave us a good chance to give him a rest, but I don't think he will be ready for tomorrow."
Salinas has started 12 of the Earthquakes 13 MLS games so far this year, but he has been visibly hampered by the injury and has not scored from open play. The 28-year old does lead the team in assists with 5, but those have all come from set pieces - a strength for the team, but one that labels it one-dimensional. Salinas relies on his explosive speed to generate scoring opportunities for his teammates, but that has been lacking so far in 2014, and resting him to allow the injury to abate has become a necessity.
"When you say ‘rest,' you hope the two weeks he had was going to be enough," said Watson, "but I don't think he is healthy enough to play now and also play for the rest of the season. We want [the injury] taken care of completely and not have him carrying something for the rest of the season. There are still a lot of games to go, and we want to get him to the point where he can play to his level and be effective."
Salinas was not at training Friday morning at Stanford Stadium, which prompted concerns about the timeline for his return. Coach Watson did not have an exact answer to that question, as well as whether or not Salinas might need to undergo a surgical procedure to repair the damage, but he also could not rule out the possibility.
"I think a procedure would be the last resort," said Watson. "What we have heard from the doctors is that rest should take care of it. How much rest, we'll wait and see. We were hoping it would be taken care of in those two weeks we had off. That's not been the case."
One player whose status for Saturday is still unclear is defender Victor Bernardez. The burly centerback has been away from the Quakes since the start of the World Cup as he captained the defense for the Honduran national team. But with Honduras' failure to qualify for the knockout round of the World Cup Finals, Bernardez is expected to return to his club, and he just might be ready to take the field against the Galaxy.
"Victor will be arriving shortly," said Watson, "so we will speak to him about how he is feeling. I will wait until our discussion before making a decision."
Bernardez started all three of Honduras' group stage matches - three loses to its competitors in Group E - though he was substituted off at halftime of the team's first match, a 3-0 loss to group winners France, as a precaution. He returned to play centerback in losses to Ecuador and Switzerland, but could not help his country earn its first ever World Cup Finals victory, despite his best efforts.
"He's definitely fit," said Watson. "He had a hard training camp and played all three games. He is healthy and fit."
If in Watson's conversation with Bernardez it is decided that the Honduran will get the weekend off, Ty Harden will continue his role as Clarence Goodson's partner in the center of the Earthquakes defense. Flanking the centerbacks is likely to be Brandon Barklage on the right and Jordan Stewart on the left.
Another player that was not present at Earthquakes training on Friday was homegrown midfielder Tommy Thompson. After making his professional debut in a cameo appearance against Toronto back on June 7, Thompson was recently loaned to San Jose's USL PRO affiliate Sacramento Republic FC. The playmaker started and played 75 minutes for the Republic on Thursday in a 1-0 win against Arizona United SC at Bonney Field in Sacramento.