Union vs. San Jose Earthquakes
10:30 p.m. on TCN
With the Union (8-11-5) now trailing in the race for the playoffs, the club, coming off a damaging loss to the Montreal Impact, must travel across the country to challenge Chris Wondolowski and the San Jose Earthquakes (9-10-5) on Saturday night (10:30 p.m, TCN) at Avaya Stadium.
Here are five things to know:
1. Feeling the pain
The Union were devastated. With a chance to keep pace in the Eastern Conference playoff race last weekend, the club was instead dispatched, 3-0, by the Impact, sinking the Union to 10th.
“It was a tough spot and really hard result for our guys,” said Union manager Jim Curtin. “We’re upset in that regard but we have an opportunity to go on the road out to California, to San Jose and play against a revamped San Jose roster and try to get a result out there.”
It was a crushing defeat for the Union, who have just 10 games remaining and trail Atlanta United by six points for the final playoff spot in the East. Atlanta has two games in hand.
“It’s a hard loss to take for the guys because we knew a result there would put us back in the thick of things,” said Curtin. “Now we have to chase, which is tough.”
That tough endeavor begins on Saturday against the Earthquakes, who are currently in a postseason position in a weaker Western Conference. The Earthquakes are 7-1-4 at home this season.
“We need a different mindset on the road,” said Union attacker Chris Pontius. “We’ve been tentative at times, it’s not easy playing away from home in this league but we need points now. We dropped three against Montreal so we need three against San Jose.”
2. Attack of the injury bug
Considering the Union’s current situation in the East, it’s a bad time for the club to get hit with injuries. But that’s exactly what has happened entering Saturday’s match.
Center back Oguchi Onyewu, playmaker Ilsinho, goalkeeper Andre Blake and midfielder Maurice Edu are all questionable for the game, with winger Fabian Herbers listed as out. Although the status of Edu, Blake and Herbers was expected, Onyewu, who missed last week’s match with a groin injury, hurts the Union most if he can’t make it on Saturday.
“Gooch would have been in the starting lineup this past week,” said Curtin. “He’s done a really good job for us but a groin injury would have prevented him from playing. It’s just got a little too tough for him and we didn’t want to risk it.”
Without Onyewu, the Union, like they did against the Impact, will be forced into using Josh Yaro at right center back, which would move Rookie of the Year contender Jack Elliott to his less natural left side. The scenario drew less than sterling results against the Impact, as Yaro struggled and Elliott appeared uncomfortable.
“We have decisions on the back line to make,” Curtin said.
The absence of Ilsinho, questionable with a right adductor strain, would also limit the Union’s lineup flexibility. Without the Brazilian, the Union will be forced into a combination of Roland Alberg or youngster Adam Najem at the No. 10 spot.
“He’s right in the discussion,” Curtin said of Najem when talking about whether the Union should opt for youth as the season dwindles. “Adam Najem is a good example of a guy who is pushing for minutes anyway, as is.”
3. Desperation Quakes
Holding the sixth spot in the Western Conference, the Earthquakes, led by Wondolowski’s nine goals and five assists, are hanging onto the playoffs by their fingernails.
“We’re excited to be back at home,” said former Union man and current Earthquakes winger, Shea Salinas. “We’re playing well at home right now and we want to keep that momentum going.”
Firing coach Dominic Kinnear in late June in favor of Chris Leitch, the Earthquakes have fared well of late, earning back-to-back wins before dropping a 3-0 decision to the Houston Dynamo last week.
“They’ve had an injection of life,” Curtin said. “They’re going to be an angry desperate team and we’re an angry desperate team, so you have two teams that need all three points at this stage, draws don’t do either of us any good right now. We’ll both have to be aggressive.”
4. Keep an eye on
John McCarthy: With injured goalkeeper Blake expected to return to the lineup on Wednesday against Toronto FC, Saturday could mark McCarthy’s last start of an eight game run. Despite the numbers and a 2-4-1 record, McCarthy has opened eyes with his stout play. He could make a statement against the Earthquakes. “He’s done a great job for us,” Curtin said.
Chris Wondolowski: His club’s leader in goals and assists, Wondolowski has three goals and eight shots on goal in his last seven matches. The crafty forward is the tip of the Earthquakes’ offensive spear.
5. This and that
• Between the Gold Cup and hand laceration, Blake is set to miss his eighth match on Saturday. The goalkeeper did get his stitches out but remains questionable. “It’s still a noticeable cut,” Curtin said. “San Jose won’t be possible but Toronto is in the discussion for the target.”
• The Union are 3-4-2 against the Earthquakes all time and a respectable 1-2-1 in San Jose.
• The Union’s first-ever match in San Jose happened on Sept. 15, 2010, at Buck Shaw Stadium, which saw Wondolowski claim the game’s only goal past Brad Knighton with a header from Arturo Alvarez. Who else played in that match? New Earthquakes coach Leitch managed 90 minutes at right back.