After spending much of the spring above the red line in the Western Conference, the San Jose Earthquakes dropped two straight league matches — to the LA Galaxy and Portland Timbers — and are now on the outside of the playoffs chase. Their task to move back up the standings won’t be easy, however, as the Quakes welcome first-place Sporting Kansas City to Avaya Stadium this Saturday, kick-off at an earlier than usual 5:45 p.m.
Compounding San Jose’s task is the absence of three key players due to suspension and injury. Darwin Ceren and Marco Urena will miss the match due to a red-card and MLS Disciplinary Committee decision respectively from the 2-0 loss at Portland. Florian Jungwirth suffered an ankle injury in Wednesday evening’s 2-0 victory over San Francisco Deltas in the U.S. Open Cup fourth round. All three have been regulars for the Quakes this season.
It’s not all bad news for San Jose, as the team welcomed Shea Salinas back from injury in Wednesday’s game and have Fatai Alashe available for selection as well. Jungwirth has been the team’s MVP for the first half of the season, manning the center back role from game one. Alashe may be pressed into duty in his stead.
Sporting KC comes to Avaya Stadium playing some of the most stingy defense in the league, having conceded just 8 goals in 8 road games. Center back Ike Opara, formerly of the Quakes, is a key reason for those gaudy numbers, as is All-Star candidate goalkeeper Tim Melia. San Jose, already challenged to finish scoring opportunities, will need to be near perfect on offense to claim all three points Saturday night.
The key for San Jose will be how involved wingers Jahmir Hyka and Tommy Thompson are in the match. Recovering possession in the midfield and pressing into attack will be to-do items #1 and #2 for Hyka and Thompson, and they will be looking to get fullbacks Cordell Cato and Nick Lima space on the overlap to stretch the Sporting KC defenders. Chris Wondolowski and Danny Hoesen will have their hands full trying to escape Opara’s defensive prowess, but if they can, the Quakes forwards need to convert their chances.
San Jose’s biggest challenge is going to be replacing Jungwirth in defense. The German has been a revelation for the Quakes, partnering expertly with veteran Victor Bernardez in the heart of the back four. If Alashe is not ready to take on the center back role, Andres Imperiale, who played in Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup win, will get the call. Anibal Godoy, in the defensive midfielder role, will also need to be at his best to provide a shield ahead of his center backs.
The Quakes may be in seventh place behind first place Sporting KC, but they are only 7 points behind the leaders. In fact, the Western Conference is very crowded heading to the halfway mark of the season — 8 points separate the top eight teams — so every result can have a big effect on where the Quakes stand in their quest to qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2012. On a points-per-game basis, San Jose is off to its worst start since head coach Dominic Kinnear returned in 2015. A win against the conference leaders will go a long way to righting the ship.