San Jose Earthquakes striker Chris Wondolowski (blue) is looking forward to his team's CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal series against Toluca next month. (Photo: Denis Concordel/www.widgic.com)
SAN JOSE, California -- After one week back with the San Jose Earthquakes on the heels of a month away with the United States national team, star striker Chris Wondolowski likes what he has seen from his teammates as they collectively get ready for their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal opener against Toluca on March 11.
“We are shaping up nicely and getting guys fit and healthy,” said Wondolowski following a lengthy preseason training session this week. “We are going to take these next few weeks seriously and hopefully be ready for them.”
The Earthquakes’ chances of advancing in the tournament looked to be slim following successive 1-0 losses, both on the road, to open up last summer’s group stage. However, playing in the friendly confines of Buck Shaw Stadium, San Jose bounced back with two shutout wins to capture Group 5 on goal difference over the Impact de Montreal and Guatemala’s Heredia. Wondolowski scored the game-winning goal in each of the Quakes victories.
The group-clinching win came just days after a scoreless draw at rival LA Galaxy all but eliminated the Earthquakes chances of qualifying for the MLS postseason. And while the sting of missing the MLS Cup playoffs is still felt, Wondolowski was pleased that the team rallied in CCL play and can look forward to a pair of meaningful quarterfinal matches.
“It’s a reward for us,” said Wondolowski. “Last year we started off with two huge goals: make the playoffs and advance in the Champions League. While the first didn’t happen, the second one did. We are going to continue striving to do better.
In addition to its series with Toluca, San Jose has a daunting stretch of games to open its 2014 MLS season. As echoed by everyone on the Quakes team and coaching staff, surviving in the Champions League and getting off to great start in league play are challenges they embrace.
“That’s what we’re gearing up and getting ready for,” said Wondolowski. “Toluca is a heck of a team, though, and we know it’s going to be a huge task and a tall order.”
Toluca’s season is well underway, perhaps giving the Liga MX side an edge when it comes to match fitness as compared to San Jose, which is still in preseason. Instead, Wondolowski sees the possibility that the under-the-radar Earthquakes might surprise their opponent and looks forward to having the side make its 2014 debut with so much on the line.
“Very excited,” said Wondolowski. “It’s going to be a great test of where we are as a team, and it’s definitely going to be a big battle, but I love those.