Shea Salinas (pictured) in CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal action for the San Jose Earthquakes on March 11, 2014. (Photo: Denis Concordel/www.widgic.com)
SAN JOSE, California -- Advancement in the CONCACAF Champions League was always going to be a tall order for the San Jose Earthquakes. After all, as the eighth seed in the quarterfinals, the MLS side was matched up against top-seeded Toluca, the 10-time Mexican champion.
A 1-1 draw at Buck Shaw Stadium to open the two-game series gives the Quakes some solace ahead of Wednesday’s second leg at the Estadio Nemesio Díez, but a rash of injuries and a key suspension among the defense corps will make the task at hand even more of a challenge.
“It’s not an ideal situation,” expressed head coach Mark Watson following the Earthquakes 3-3 draw to Real Salt Lake over the weekend, “but we’ll figure out who is healthy and who can play and we’ll put something together for the game Wednesday night.”
Watson saw dependable starters Brandon Barklage, Jordan Stewart, and Clarence Goodson all miss the Salt Lake match due to varying degrees of injury. It is possible that only Goodson will be available against Toluca, but even that is questionable.
“We’ll take whoever’s healthy and go after them,” said goalkeeper Jon Busch. “We’re always up for challenges in this locker room and this is just another challenge. We know what’s in front of us and what we have to do and we’ll take our healthy boys and go after it.”
Even if Goodson is able to go, he will be without his center back partner Victor Bernardez, who is suspended for tonight’s match due to yellow card accumulation. The two Earthquakes defenders arguably make up the most dominant center back tandem in MLS, and both players are expected to represent their countries -- Goodson for the U.S. and Bernardez for Honduras -- in the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Against Toluca, it might be rookie Joe Sofia manning the defensive middle instead.
“It’s always difficult when you have guys injured,” noted midfield catalyst Shea Salinas, the assist provider for the Quakes in the first leg, “but we’re confident that we can slide anyone back there and they can play well.”
Confidence has never been in short supply in San Jose, and despite the injury-riddled back line, the club still features a potent blend of attackers that will look to counter on Toluca as well as create scoring opportunities from set pieces.
“Set pieces are a big advantage for us,” said Watson. “They are something we work on a lot. We have great headers of the ball, their timing is good, and they are very elusive. They seem to find space and the ball in the box, and we will look to execute that on Wednesday.”
Even without Goodson or Bernardez, two important targets on set pieces, the Earthquakes still boast bruising forwards Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon in the area. Toluca knows all too well how imposing San Jose can be in the air as they were stung by Gordon’s stoppage time goal in the first leg 1-1 draw at Buck Shaw Stadium.
“We go for it,” said Gordon. “It’s never over for us. We’re not going to lie down. We are going to fight you to the end. Things have happened for us, I don’t think you can call it luck. I really don’t. We are in there making things happen.”
With their backs against the wall and a formidable Toluca side waiting for them, the Earthquakes will hope to summon up that never-say-die attitude for at least one more game.