As a player, you can't ask for anything more than to have the last game of the season be meaningful. For the San Jose Earthquakes, who visit FC Dallas on Sunday as part of MLS Decision Day, their season finale means a chance to qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2012.
"It's exciting," said midfielder Shea Salinas to Center Line Soccer prior to the team's departure for Frisco, Texas. "Dallas is obviously a good team, especially when they are playing at home."
FC Dallas boasts a 12-2-2 record at Toyota Stadium this season and has already clinched the top seed in the MLS Western Conference going in the postseason. But the Hoops have plenty to play for as they start the day tied for the Supporters' Shield lead with the New York Red Bulls. Should the Red Bulls win on Sunday against lowly Chicago Fire in a game that will play concurrently with Quakes vs. Dallas, the Texas side will be eliminated from Shield contention regardless of the result it earns.
"The way they are playing, whether they had a lot to play for or not a lot to play for, they would approach the game the same way," said head coach Dominic Kinnear. "They seem to be very motivated, their players are very dynamic. That's from the outside looking in, but I don't expect that they will change their approach."
The Earthquakes will face one of the most dynamic teams in all of MLS, one that features a number of homegrown players as well as talented internationals. FC Dallas has scored 50 goals and allowed only 38 -- the best goal differential in all the West -- and beat the Earthquakes 1-0 the last time San Jose visited Toyota Stadium.
"They are incredibly speedy, and they are great on the counterattack," said club MVP Chris Wondolowski. "Fabian Castillo is one of the better players in the league, and they are dangerous all over. Even on defense, Matt Hedges has had a very effective but quiet year and has been solid for them. That is why they have won the West already and have a chance for a Supporters' Shield."
San Jose will want a win on Sunday, but they will not throw caution to the wind, especially since a draw could be enough to see them advance to the playoffs. Instead, the Earthquakes will likely employ a more pragmatic approach to the match, asking his defense to play solidly and his offense to wisely take its chances when they arise.
"The biggest challenges are that Castillo is pretty quick and [Mauro] Diaz is really good on the ball," said Salinas. "Stopping those guys on defense and then counterattacking is something we can do well at and hopefully can continue."
"We have to find a balance of that," added Wondolowski. "Especially with Dallas, they are so good on the counterattack, so we can't just be throwing numbers forward and hoping that we keep them with a zero. I don't think that will happen."
Besides Castillo and Diaz, FC Dallas also features attackers Michael Barrios and David Texeira along a front four that Kinnear admitted was one of the best in MLS. But the coach was also quick to give praise to the Hoops defensive corps, both for its efforts in the back and overlapping outside into the attacking third. Overall, Kinnear knows the Earthquakes face a very tough challenge in their quest to qualify for the postseason.
"They are a very well balanced team," said Kinnear, "but when you look at our games against them this year -- the 1-0 late result and the zeros at home -- we've played them hard, and I think they understand that we are going to be a tough team and no pushover. We are both playing for something, which adds a little bit of spice and story line to the game, but first off it is identifying their strengths and hopefully find some weaknesses we can take advantage of."
How to Watch San Jose Earthquakes at FC Dallas:
Kick-off: 4:00 p.m. Pacific time (6:00 p.m. local time) as part of MLS Decision Day
Television: Comcast SportsNet Bay Area
Radio: 1590 KLIV, 1370 KZSF
Watch Party: Avaya Stadium video scoreboard, free admission.