By FRANCO PANIZO
For the San Jose Earthquakes, there is no time to shake off the preseason cobwebs because a CONCACACAF Champions League bout awaits.
The Earthquakes may not have played in opening weekend of the 2014 MLS season because of a bye in the schedule, but that will not stop them from having the difficult task of hosting a Toluca side in midseason form in the opening leg of their Champions League quarterfinals series.
San Jose has the benefit of playing this match in front of their eager fans at Buck Shaw Stadium, but will need to try and avoid showing any offseason rust in their first game of the year. Another plus is that head coach Mark Watson should have nearly all of his regulars available for this, including a now healthy star striker in Chris Wondolowski and stout centerback Victor Bernardez (fellow central defender Clarence Goodson is suspended due to the red card he received in the final group stage match last year).
Mexican club opposition has never been easy for MLS teams, however, and this series should prove no different. Aside from being in the full swing of things in the Liga MX Clausura campaign, Toluca are currently one of the hottest teams in Mexico’s first division. They sit in second place in the league standings and have lost just once in their last fives matches.
The Earthquakes will need to be as close to their very best as possible in order to grab a result at home and give themselves a chance of advancing into the semifinals, a difficult proposition given that there will likely be some new pieces in the club’s starting lineup.
Whether it’s Brandon Barklage at right back or Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi in midfield, San Jose is going to have to limit any chemistry issues while staying true to the rough-and-tumble style that they have so effectively adopted and deployed in recent years. Grabbing a late goal as they have done so often the past couple of seasons surely would not hurt either.
The Earthquakes might be far from favorites in this series and in the tournament in general, but they always seem to kick things up a notch when playing in the underdog role. The stakes are indeed higher and San Jose has yet to play in a match this season, but Toluca should not count the Earthquakes out regardless of how futile MLS clubs have largely been in this competition.
After all, San Jose has repeatedly shown a habit for beaten the odds.
How do you see the Earthquakes faring vs. Toluca? Think it will be difficult for San Jose given that it is the club’s first game of the year? What is the key to the match/series?
Share your thoughts below.