"Kick 'em when they're up, Kick 'em when they're down, Kick 'em when they're stiff, Kick 'em all around" -- Don Henley, Dirty Laundry
For the San Jose Earthquakes, who have yet to record a victory away from the friendly confines of Avaya Stadium this season, a road trip to the Windy City to face the struggling Chicago Fire is just the opportunity they can ill afford to squander.
After all, the Quakes have slipped out of the playoff spots in the Western Conference on the heels of a five-game winless streak, and the Fire sit rooted to the bottom of the MLS table with only 11 points in 14 games. It seems the perfect pairing this Friday night, kick-off at 5:00 p.m., broadcast on UniMas, for the Quakes to creep up the standings with their first road win of 2016.
"Do we catch them at the right time?" asked head coach Dominic Kinnear. "It all depends on how we play."
The Earthquakes have struggled on offense since Chris Wondolowski left to play with the U.S. men's national team in what was a fourth-place finish in the Copa America Centenario. Wondolowski started in the tournament's semifinal against Lionel Messi and Argentina, but the Yanks could not keep pace with the FIFA number one ranked team in the world and lost 4-0. In his absence, the Quakes have managed to earn three points from three draws, but the team needs Wondolowski in the starting lineup to remain competitive in the West.
"When you add back Chris, it only makes your squad better, makes your team better, makes you more dangerous," said Kinnear. "Now that's he's back, he wants to play, he loves being around the guys, and he makes people around him happy, and that's good."
Wondolowski, a real student of the game, has been following the Earthquakes closely since leaving for national team camp prior to the Copa America. He's watched every minute of every game, including the Cali Clasico last Saturday when the Quakes equalized late to earn a 1-1 tie against the Galaxy.
In fact, given that the timing of the game was right after the USA's third-place match against Colombia, one that the Yanks dropped 1-0 to the South Americans, Wondo had to watch the first 30 minutes of the game on his phone in the locker room before catching the rest of the game in the team meeting room.
"Anytime I was watching them, I had a pit in my stomach and wanted to be out there," said Wondolowski. "I don't know how fans do it sometimes. I was sweating, had the heartaches, but it was also fun."
And what did the Earthquakes captain think of the performance?
"We need to do the little things," said Wondolowski. "I've been able to watch all the games, and I think we've been playing well at moments, but we've had some lapses here and there when it came to keeping possession and connecting passes. Even some of our defending, on set pieces and crosses, has been lax, so we will look to sort that out as well."
The Fire are the second most impotent team in MLS so far this season, scoring only 14 goals -- surprisingly, the Seattle Sounders lead in offensive futility with only 13 goals -- but Chicago is very solid defensively. Still, the Quakes have to be considered favorites Friday night, especially with Wondolowski back in the mix, though his forward partner Quincy Amarikwa is not ready to declare victory.
"When a team is struggling as much as Chicago is," warned Amarikwa, "they are a team you have to be more mindful of. Any team can beat any other team on any given day, especially in MLS. It almost plays to your advantage if you are the underdog in this league, especially if the favorite doesn't take it seriously."
The match at Chicago will bring the Earthquakes to the midpoint of their season -- 17 of a total 34 games on the calendar, and Amarikwa is keenly aware that San Jose will need to do better to close out the season in order to break a three-year MLS Cup playoffs drought.
"The fact that we haven't won on the road is a mark on our list that we really want to tick off," said Amarikwa, "but we know Chicago is a team that doesn't want to be looked at as an easy three points. Having said that, I hope their losing streak continues, and I hope we can come away with our first road win."