The San Jose Earthquakes know how much points matter at all times during the season when it comes to qualifying for the MLS Cup playoffs. After all, in 2015, a few dropped points at home, seemingly inconsequential at the time, were responsible for extending the team's postseason drought for a third straight year. A disappointing seventh place finish in the Western Conference left the Quakes on the outside looking in when the playoffs began.
So it is with a mixture of optimism and caution that the Earthquakes look to their 2016 MLS regular season opener against the Colorado Rapids on Sunday at Avaya Stadium, kick-off scheduled for noon local time. And even though there is rain in the forecast, the task of getting off to a fast start will not be dampened.
"Every player in MLS, especially in San Jose, is waiting for that first whistle to go," said head coach Dominic Kinnear, eager to get on with the campaign after concluding preseason camp.
The Earthquakes starting line-up against the Rapids will be identical to that which faced the New York Cosmos last weekend in a 1-0 hard-fought victory at Avaya Stadium. Clarence Goodson scored the game's only goal, and goalkeeper David Bingham continued his impressive streak between the posts. In 2015, he finished the season with a franchise record tying 12 shutouts in 34 starts.
"In the middle and end of last year, defensively and as a team, we kind of hit our stride," said Bingham. "We want to pick up right where we left off and start on the right foot."
The Quakes made a last season push for the playoffs, but they came up short on the last day of the season, losing 2-1 on the road to FC Dallas, the eventual first place finishers in the Western Conference. Matias Perez Garcia, the leading assist provider for San Jose in 2015, received a red card in the loss and will serve a one-game suspension in the season opener. He will be replaced in the starting line-up by newly signed Panamanian midfielder Alberto Quintero.
Leading the attack will be the forward tandem of Chris Wondolowski and Quincy Amarikwa, who together scored 22 of the club's 41 total goals in 2015. Just behind the forwards will play midfielder Simon Dawkins, who signed a Designated Player contract in January in his return to San Jose after playing three years in England. The attacking trio will need to be one its game against the Rapids, despite Colorado's dismal last-place finish a year ago.
"MLS is the one league in the world where you could be last place one year and one of the best teams in the league the next year," said Amarikwa. "Underestimating opponents in this league is not something veterans tend to do, because they understand what kind of league it is and any team can win on any given day."
Call that the caution that comes with the optimism of a new season, with the Dawkins signing providing most of the positiveness ahead of the season opener. The Jamaica international was a key part of the the last Quakes team to make the postseason -- the 2012 MLS Supporters' Shield winners. Dawkins returns to San Jose knowing that he has some unfinished business to attend to, but he is does like the team's chances.
"This squad is really strong," said Dawkins. "Now it is about gelling and having a good start to the season. Every point matters when your goal is MLS Cup."
The 28-year-old midfielder will be joined centrally in the starting line-up by 2015 midseason acquisition Anibal Godoy, who established himself as a team MVP candidate from the moment he stepped on the field for the Earthquakes, hours after he arrived in San Jose from his native Panama. Wondolowski knows firsthand how Dawkins can influence a game, and he is very excited to see his 2012 teammate bring his talents back to MLS.
"We love having Simon back," said Wondolowski. "He's such a classy player on the field. He has such great composure where he is able to help the possession game, and his speed allows him to attack the ball. Having him on the ball in the attacking third is another dynamic that we need. It's nice to have him here."
With MPG serving a one-game suspension, Shea Salinas is set to start at the other outside midfielder position, likely on the left with Quintero on the right. The Earthquakes back four will have a familiar look as Marvell Wynne, Victor Bernardez, Clarence Goodson, and Shaun Francis line up from right to left in front of goalkeeper Bingham.
Designated Player forward Innocent and third-year homegrown player signing Tommy Thompson will be the two main offensive threats off the bench. Off-season signings forward Chad Barrett and defender Andres Imperiale are questionable for Sunday and are unlikely to be in the game-day 18.
Last year, the inaugural season at Avaya Stadium, the Earthquakes finished with a record of 7-3-5 -- respectable, but not enough for San Jose to gain entry into the playoffs. This year, the Quakes will aim to do better at home, especially with five of the season's first eight games at their own venue, and no game will be taken for granted, especially those against conference foes.
"You want to attack every opponent as if this is the deciding game for the playoffs," said Amarikwa. "If you can approach every game like that, come the end of the year, you will be in position to make the playoffs."
San Jose Earthquakes vs. Colorado Rapids starting line-up
Quincy Amarikwa -- Chris Wondolowski
Shea Salinas -- Simon Dawkins -- Anibal Godoy -- Alberto Quintero
Shaun Francis -- Clarence Goodson -- Victor Bernardez -- Marvell Wynne