As the San Jose Earthquakes continue their preseason camp with an eye toward MLS home opener against Real Salt Lake, the team also is fervently preparing for the start of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals and a two-match date with Mexico’s Toluca.
Although the Quakes topped their three-team group last summer, becoming one of eight teams to advance in the tournament, they were the bottom seed of the survivors and face a difficult challenge in high-flying Toluca. Fellow MLS sides LA Galaxy and Sporting Kansas City also qualified and will face Mexico sides Tijuana and Cruz Azul respectively.
“It’s an incredible opportunity,” said forward Mike Fucito, who has scored five career goals in the CCL. “It’s a great competition that allows you to see how you measure up against some of the best teams in the region.”
If San Jose can get past Toluca in the two-game aggregate goal series, then it would face the winner of the series between Alajuelense of Costa Rica and Arabe Unido of Panama. Toluca has a storied history in the tournament, having won it twice during its previous incarnation as the CONCACAF Champions Cup.
“Toluca is a heck of a team,” said forward Chris Wondolowski, who scored both game-winning goals in the group stage to secure the Quakes place in the CCL quarterfinals, “and we know it’s going to be a huge task and a tall order.”
And if the task of beating their neighbors south of the border was not hard enough — in the past five tournaments, only one MLS team, the Seattle Sounders in 2013, has managed to advance past a team from Mexico. The Earthquakes will face a Toluca team that is already in the thick of its regular season. In fact, seven matches into the Liga MX Clausura, Toluca sit comfortably in second place behind fellow CCL quarterfinalist Cruz Azul.
The Earthquakes know the task at hand will not be easy, and the hope is that the squad, fresh off of preseason and unburdened by injury and fatigue, can peak in time for the series opening match on March 11 at Buck Shaw Stadium.
“We are shaping up nicely and getting guys fit and healthy,” said Wondolowski. “We are going to take these next few weeks seriously and hopefully be ready for them.”
Only two days before its visit to San Jose to kick off the CCL quarterfinals, Toluca will host struggling Puebla at its home Estadio Nemesio Diez. The quick turnaround for Toluca could play in the Quakes favor, as the Mexico side might look to sit back in the series opener and wait for the return leg on March 19 to play a full-strength squad. Throw in a league match on the road against Queretaro between its games against San Jose, and Toluca faces the difficult challenge of managing its roster over the two competitions.
From the Quakes point of view, if previous two-leg CCL ties involving MLS and Liga MX sides are any indication, San Jose will need to get off to a strong start at home to have much of a chance of surviving the second game in Mexico. The atmosphere at Toluca’s home stadium is very intimidating, as it can be across the country, and the Earthquakes will face their sternest test so far in 2014.
“It’s definitely a unique experience,” said Fucito, who played in Mexico against Santos Laguna when a member of the Sounders. “You can’t really grasp it until you are down there in the thick of it. You get to see what passion is like down there. It is getting better here, but it is a different animal down there.”
With less than three weeks until they face Toluca, the Earthquakes will cap off their preseason by participating in the Rose City Invitational in Portland. Two of the three matches on the docket are against MLS foes, including the competition’s opener against the Portland Timbers, and a sell-out crowd is expected at Providence Park.
“The upcoming tournament in Portland comes at a good time for us,” said Fucito. “Playing there is the closest we can get to a real game in terms of atmosphere and opponent.”
The Earthquakes are likely to use their first-choice line-up when it comes to the tournament as the coaching staff does little more than some fine tuning ahead of the Champions League quarterfinal. Toluca will be hardened with regular season experience coming into San Jose on March 11, but the Quakes will be fresh and focused.
“It’s going to be a great test of where we are as a team,” said Wondolowski, “and it’s definitely going to be a big battle.”