After having to piece together his lineups for much of the season’s first four months, San Jose Earthquakes coach Frank Yallop suddenly faces a different and altogether more pleasant dilemma.
Having secured the Quakes’ first playoff spot since their 2008 reinstatement, Yallop now gets to balance how much time off to give his starters versus how badly he wants to maintain his club’s momentum – they're 6-2-2 in their last 10 games – heading into the postseason.
“Our main priority now is that first playoff game, so whatever we do in the next three matches, we have a little bit of a luxury to rest some guys that we don’t want to get injured, and that’s important,” Yallop said.
Complicating matters is the fact that San Jose have an extra match squeezed into the final week of the season. Having a game in hand was a boon when the Quakes were still chasing a playoff berth; now that they’re in, facing Houston on Saturday, Chivas USA on Wednesday and closing at Kansas City on Oct. 23 is more of a burden.
“It’ll be interesting to see what happens,” defender Tim Ward said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if some guys don’t play that Wednesday game just because it would be tough to play the three games in seven days and then play the playoff game the next week.”
[inline_node:313511]This is the third time this season the Quakes have faced a Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday schedule. The first two instances each featured an ugly loss – 2-0 to FC Dallas on June 5, 3-0 at home to Chicago on Sept. 29 – which forced Yallop to adapt his strategy.
"I would have changed the lineup anyway this week, because I’ve learned from Dallas away and even Chicago home,” Yallop said. “We play in Toronto and I play the same lineup against Chicago [four days later] and it doesn’t work. It’s just too much for the guys. It’s too much travel. It’s too hard on them.”
One change will be league-mandated. Center back Brandon McDonald will head to the bench for the Houston match after drawing a straight red card against D.C. United last weekend. He will likely be replaced by Bobby Burling, who hasn’t seen action since Sept. 5.
Yallop has plenty of players on hand who haven’t enjoyed much run lately, such as Arturo Alvarez, Cornell Glen, Steve Beitashour and returning captain Ramiro Corrales.
Corrales, out since early August with a left knee sprain, would love to get as much playing time as possible. He’s been training full bore and has no problems with his knee, but this is his last chance to get fit enough to make a playoff appearance.
In goal, Yallop might also look at getting backup 'keeper Brian Edwards a game. Jon Busch is the undisputed starter, but the recently signed Edwards hasn’t faced live MLS competition in almost a year; he was most recently in an MLS goal for a 5-0 defeat at the end of Toronto FC’s 2009 campaign and spent much of this year with USL-2 side Charlotte.
Not that Busch is interested in any time off.
[inline_node:312247]“I get my rest in the offseason,” Busch said. “I program myself before every season to hopefully play every game. ... As Tom Brady said, ‘Why would I give my backup reps? I’m the quarterback of the New England Patriots.’ I’m the goalkeeper of the San Jose Earthquakes. I want to play. It’s what I get paid to do.”
Then there’s the case of 14-goal man and rising MVP candidate Chris Wondolowski, who has not only the Quakes’ all-time single-season record – 15 goals, set by Ronald Cerritos in 1999 – in his sights, but also MLS leader Edson Buddle, who sits on 16 goals and has only two matches left to Wondo’s three.
Since sitting out the Quakes’ first two matches of the season, Wondolowski has started 24 of 25 games.
“If [Yallop] asks me, I’m going to say I want to play all three games,” Wondolowski said. “I always want to be out there. If he says it’s best for the team to not go, I have no problem with that and won’t say anything to him or argue with him. The individual awards would be great, but ultimately, the one award I want to get is that championship ring. That’s all that matters.”
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. On Twitter: @sjquakes