While there are many fans whose attention is focused on this weekend’s rivalry match at the LA Galaxy, the San Jose Earthquakes play a very important game this Wednesday night as part of the CONCACAF Champions League. The CCL, as the tournament is known, pits the best teams in the region against one another with the winner advancing to the FIFA Club World Cup.
After failing to get a result against fellow MLS side the Montreal Impact in their CCL group stage opener, the Quakes play their round two game in Guatemala City against the third competitor in Group 5, C.D. Heredia (kickoff is at 7:00 p.m. on Fox Soccer Plus). The Guatemalans opened their CCL campaign with a 1-0 win at home over the Impact last week and are striving to make it two in a row. San Jose is hoping to even things out in the standings by earning an important road victory.
“They are a good opponent, but ultimately the goal is to get a result,” said interim head coach Mark Watson on Monday ahead of the team’s flight to Guatemala. “We will put out a very competitive team Wednesday night, and we’ll be trying to win the game.”
With three teams in each of the eight CCL groups vying for only one invitation to the tournament’s knockout rounds, the margin for error is very slim. In the 1-0 loss to the Impact earlier this month, Watson employed an entirely different starting lineup to the one he used in MLS league matches played before and after that match. The balancing act of performing well in the league while remaining competitive in the CCL is not unique to San Jose, but that doesn’t mean Watson has given up on capturing the region’s top club honor.
“We’re definitely trying to get hardware in CCL, that’s been our goal all along,” said Watson, “but we’re very aware that you have to be smart in how you manage your club over 34 league games and also Champions League games as well as the travel. I don’t think anyone has said we are not motivated to win this, but we will be very pragmatic in our approach in terms of how we give ourselves the best chance to get a result in every game respective of the situation in which we find ourselves.”
Since the upcoming California Clasico on Saturday is a pivotal match in the Earthquakes quest to stay apace of the playoff chase, Watson is likely to make some adjustments to the starting eleven he used against FC Dallas last weekend. Due to impending suspensions to defenders Justin Morrow and Victor Bernardez due to red cards and midfielder Rafael Baca due to yellow card accumulation, he is weighing the option of featuring those three players against Heredia and not making wholesale changes as he did against the Impact in the Quakes CCL opener.
That strengthened squad selection could prove valuable for San Jose in an almost must-win match given the structure of the tournament. By virtue of Heredia’s win over 10-man Impact last week, the Earthquakes close loss to Montreal on August 7 stings a little bit less. In fact, the win by the Guatemalans revealed why many pundits were calling the Quakes group “The Group of Death” when the CCL draw was made in the spring.
“Yes, the result showed that there are three really good teams in the group,” said Watson. “We came out of Montreal disappointed in the result, even though our performance was good. Knowing that we have destiny in our own hands now that Montreal has lost as well means the group is wide open. That won’t change our approach to the game; the plan has always been to go down there and get a result.”
With the last two of four group stage games at Buck Shaw Stadium, the Quakes could afford to collect a draw against Heredia, but a victory would put San Jose in the driver’s seat to advance to next spring’s elimination rounds. So, just how does Watson plan to get a result in Guatemala City on Wednesday night?
“We plan to go into the game being defensively sound and solid, but also be dynamic going forward,” said Watson. “We want to get balls wide, get balls into the box, and give our strikers opportunities to score goals.”
Such a recipe has worked progressively well in MLS since he took over the reigns of the team in June, and Watson will want to see that same dedication to working together as a team manifested against Heredia. However, the coach also recognized that playing away in the CCL, especially in Central America and the Caribbean, poses another level of concern for MLS clubs — the propensity of players to enhance embellishment in the run of play as a means to creating free kick opportunities.
“We will definitely broach that subject when we speak together about how we want to approach the game,” said Watson. “You have to be more careful in your tackles, especially around the box. Players have a knack of drawing fouls and going down a little bit easier, so that will be addressed.”
Coming off the heels of a very physical match against FC Dallas, Watson also will emphasize with his squad the need to keep calm in the face of such potential histrionics and the foul calls that may ensue. After all, it was an early red card to the Impact’s Adrian Lopez that spelled their downfall in Guatemala City last week. The Earthquakes will look to learn from Montreal’s experience and avoid that same fate.
“We’ll discuss our overall discipline,” said Watson. “There are going to be things that go against us and we need to keep that in focus if we hope to get a result.”
While a loss does not eliminate the Earthquakes from the competition, it would make the task of advancing a much greater challenge. However, if Watson’s squad plays to its strengths, a result against Heredia seems likely, and the Quakes quest for CCL hardware stays very much alive.