The rigors of travel in MLS, well documented at this point and similar for all teams in the league, are tough enough, but to have played three away games in eight days was downright brutal. Fortunately for the San Jose Earthquakes, who will play no more than two games in a row on the road the rest of the season and close the campaign with seven of nine games at home, the schedule only gets easier from this point.
That the Quakes went undefeated on that road trip, drawing at Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids, with a win at the Houston Dynamo sandwiched in between, is a major accomplishment for a club that struggled to earn results of any kind on the road last season (1-6-10, 9 points). So far in 2015 (2-2-3, 8 points), the team has shown a propensity to play more disciplined on the road, and both draws on the last trip could have easily been victories if the ball had bounced their way once or twice per game.
Nonetheless, from the trainers and support staff, to the players, to head coach Dominic Kinnear, the entire group was united in expressing their relief at returning to San Jose.
"It's good to be home," said Kinnear with an almost sigh of relief this week. "It was a grueling experience on the road," added defender Jordan Stewart. "It was the most grueling since I've been here."
Kinnear had the unenviable task of balancing his roster over the three game road trip that included two trips to altitude and one into the humid oven of Houston. But the team made it through with only one issue -- a very significant issue -- the loss of designated player Innocent to a non-contact knee injury. The Swiss forward had surgery last week and will miss between 4 and 6 months of the season, so Kinnear will have to look elsewhere on his bench for offensive reinforcements.
Adam Jahn has been good in the role of target forward for the Quakes, but he definitely looked fatigued by the end of the road trip, and his miss at the end of the Colorado match, one that would have iced the game for San Jose, gave the Rapids the lifeline they needed to pressure the Earthquakes into conceding an equalizer. With Steven Lenhart still out and no timetable provided for his return, the next potential option at forward is Mark Sherrod.
"Sherrod is getting a little bit closer," Kinnear revealed on Friday, but added that the former Dynamo forward still needed to gain full fitness and would not be available on Saturday when the Earthquake host the Columbus Crew SC at Avaya Stadium. Sherrod is coming off knee surgery, and Kinnear expressed that the conditioning staff is in no rush to get him involved in full training activities.
Good news on the availability front is that San Jose will welcome back both Fatai Alashe and JJ Koval into the match day 18 this weekend. Alashe took a nasty knee to the back courtesy of Dynamo midfielder Ricardo Clark -- ironically, the player that Kinnear referencing when describing Alashe's style of play -- and sat out the game against the Rapids. The Michigan State product and U.S. U-23 national team member trained the entire week and is expected to start against Crew SC.
Koval is a good bet to make the bench, as is either Stewart or Cato as a defensive backup. Stewart saw his first minutes of the 2015 campaign during the road trip, and Cato has filled in effectively at outside back when the Englishman (and Marvell Wynne) was not available. Stewart is expected to start on Saturday, as is Wynne, but Cato will be ready to go if called on.
Shaun Francis, who suffered a nasty collision earlier this season and suffered a fractured cheekbone, trained the entire week, according to Kinnear. However, the coach warned that it was too early to expect Francis back on the field as the injury will still need time to completely heal. The Quakes three center backs -- Clarence Goodson, who was given the night off against Colorado, Victor Bernardez, and Paulo Renato -- are all available against Columbus, and it is a safe bet that the Portuguese will be the odd man out in the selection process.
Lastly, Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi sat out again this week as he tries to rehabilitate his troublesome ankle. The Frenchman's return is still uncertain, but Alashe is doing an admirable job filling in at defensive midfielder.
Notes from Training:
At Friday's end-of-session shooting drill, Sherrod and Leandro Barrera strutted their stuff with some powerful shots, but it was Chris Wondolowski and Mike Fucito as the last two men standing as both scored consecutive goals while their teammates were denied by the trio of Quakes' keepers. In the last round of the competition, both forwards missed, as David Bingham emerged the biggest winner with some excellent saves.
To a tee, the players were in good spirits on the training day before the match against Columbus, and it was clear that Kinnear had his work cut out for him to decide on who would and who wouldn't make his match day 18. Khari Stephenson, who played a solid shift in midfield against Colorado, is one of the likely odd men out, but with Tommy Thompson away with the U.S. U-20 men's national team ahead of next month's World Cup, he might be considered.