The Earthquakes come out of Major League Soccer's World Cup break prepared to right the ship that seemingly drifted without purpose through the first 13 games of the season. However, it will not be an easy task, as San Jose gets right back into action with a match against heated rivals LA Galaxy at sold-out Stanford Stadium.
The squad convened at the site of Saturday's California Clasico for the last training session ahead of the match, and the players looked hungry to get back at it. A U.S. Open Cup contest at Seattle on Tuesday was a good warm-up, a game the Quakes lost in a penalty kick shootout, but the opportunity to rise above their current eighth place in the Western Conference is first and foremost on the players' minds.
"Big game for us," said Sam Cronin, the team's MVP last year. "It is the first league game in a while, so we will look to start the second half of the season on a good track and get three points."
Almost a year ago to the day, following a tumultuous period of the season where long-time head coach Frank Yallop and the team parted ways, the Quakes entered the Cali Clasico at Stanford Stadium still trying to find their footing under new coach Mark Watson. The Galaxy looked strong that night, and going into second half stoppage time held a one goal advantage.
But then Alan Gordon happened. Already with a goal earlier in the second half that halved LA's 2-0 advantage, Gordon found himself, in the fourth minute of stoppage time floating to the far post, heading home Cronin's deft chip for the improbable game winner. Pandemonium broke out on the field and in the stands, a moment that the target forward will not soon forget, one he hopes the team, if necessary, can conjure up again.
"We're excited for it," said Gordon after training on Friday, standing along the same endline he sprinted along following his Galaxy beater last year. "Just being here brings back a lot of good memories. It's hard to explain that last game, how amazing it was, but it brings out the best in us, and hopefully we can put on another good show."
"The energy in that stadium is so great," added Cronin. "The sheer number of people that will be there, we've had some good games here, some great memories, and we are hoping to come out on top again tomorrow."
Coach Watson definitely shared the positive memories of his players, but he was quick to point out that he would prefer his team follow a different script this year, even if it doesn't have the same thrill-ride caliber.
"We are not planning that as a coaching staff," quipped Watson to a large circle of reporters Friday morning. "I think that game was very unique. It just showed the character and the type of players we have to keep fighting and never losing your belief that you can win the game.
"Ideally we don't go down in the game tomorrow. We score early, and maybe we score a second one, and win 2-0. That's probably the plan, but games don't always go to plan and you have to adjust. We're all looking forward to a good game."
The Quakes will still be without Chris Wondolowski, who, along with the U.S. men's national team, has extended his stay in Brazil through at least next Tuesday, but they could see the return of centerback Victor Bernardez, whose Honduran team was knocked out of the World Cup in the group stage. Filling in for Wondo, the Earthquakes are likely to welcome back dynamic Portuguese striker Yannick Djalo into the starting eleven, pending a late fitness test on Saturday. San Jose knows it will have to do without the services of Shea Salinas, who scored the game-tying goal in last year's Clasico, as the winger continues to recuperate from a lingering abdominal muscle injury.
One name that is certain to be penciled into the lineup is forward Steven Lenhart, who Tuesday night against Seattle scored a stunning volley from just outside the penalty area in the Quakes' Open Cup game. Having not scored at all to this point in the season, it was important goal for Lenhart, even if it came in a losing effort.
"It was really big for us," said Gordon. "It's obvious that we are not scoring as many goals and creating as many chances. Hopefully, the floodgates open for him and we start scoring some more goals. We simply need to be more productive as a whole."
"Lenny does so much more than score goals," added Watson. "He does so much work, and he does a lot of stuff to allow other players to do their things. You always judge him in a quantitative way; for any striker, you want to score goals. It is part of playing up there - you do a lot of work, but you still look at yourself in terms of goals. I think it was good for him. It is always good for your confidence. When you are not scoring goals, you are not always sure how to get it back, but scoring a goal gives you confidence and we hope he can take that and get a couple tomorrow night."
The Galaxy, though their record through 12 MLS games leaves them only one point ahead of the Earthquakes in the standings, will pose a formidable task, despite reports that talisman Robbie Keane is not match fit and Landon Donovan is not either. LA also will be without Designated Player defender Omar Gonzalez, who, along with Wondolowski, is with the U.S. team in Brazil that is preparing for a Round of Sixteen match against Belgium. Still, LA coach Bruce Arena will have his squad ready to go.
"We will be very respectful of their players and their abilities," said Watson. "They have top players, and we know that, everybody knows that. But we have some good attacking players that we will utilize, so we will look to take the game to them."
Watson elaborated that he would still like to see his defense remain organized in the back, even at the expense of not pushing up into the attack, especially if the Quakes could get an early goal. With a crowd approaching 50,000 expected at Stanford Stadium, the Earthquakes supporters could just be the twelfth man the team will need to push them over the top.
"Yes," said Gordon as a matter of fact. "Any game would be important, but this is a special event and we have had some special moments here, so it is a special game. But, at the end of the day, we need three points. No matter where we are playing, we need to have a good performance. If you can't get up for this game, you can't get up for any game, so that's a boost for us. I think it will help us get the three points tomorrow."
The match starts at 7:30 p.m. and will be followed up with a huge fireworks show - the fourth straight "Summer of Soccer" celebration hosted by the Earthquakes. And though the fireworks on the field last season will be hard to match, another win against the Galaxy, no matter the form it takes, is goal number one for San Jose.