San Jose earns shot at redemption
San Jose Earthquakes interim coach Mark Watson possesses the latitude do what his colleagues with Houston and Sporting Kansas City cannot in their final CONCACAF Champions League group games this week.
He can actually name his best available XI without the fear of significant repercussions in domestic play.
Most of the time, potential fallout from Champions League team selection does not exact a season-altering toll. Major League Soccer clubs can pick one competition or the other to prioritize in a given week depending on the tasks presented. Sometimes, they can select both if the surrounding schedule isn't demanding. It isn't an ideal scenario by any means, but teams find a way to muddle through.
Not this week. Not with the last round of Champions League group games unfolding right before the final weekend of the MLS regular season. The impending -- and altogether ridiculous, given the stakes at hand -- convergence issues carry genuine consequences for Houston and Sporting on all fronts.
International commitments often yield in these calculations, but it isn't quite as straightforward in this instance given the enticement of a quarterfinal berth and the peril of pursuing it. Choosing the regulars offers no guarantees -- Liga MX champions Club América crashed out with its starters on the field in the 1-0 home defeat to LD Alajuelense on Tuesday night -- in this improving competition and presents considerable risks at the weekend in success or failure.
Similar tenets apply to fielding blended sides to close out either the Champions League or the MLS campaign. Are Houston (fighting for its playoff life in a must-win match at D.C. United on Sunday) and Sporting (tussling with New York for top spot in the Eastern Conference and perhaps a chance to lift the Supporters' Shield) really in a position to divert any resources away from their league duties at this juncture? Houston tipped its hand by releasing a travel roster with several starters included and Brad Davis and Boniek Garcia omitted on Tuesday night, but the questions about deployment still linger.
Watson and the Earthquakes nearly placed themselves in a similar predicament with their stirring second half of the season. Their belated playoff charge lasted until LA Galaxy -- the only MLS outfit with a Champions League quarterfinal berth already secured ahead of a trip to face Isidro Metapán in San Salvador ( live, Thursday, FOX Sports 2, 10 p.m. ET) -- scuppered those postseason hopes with a 0-0 draw on Sunday.
It served as a bitter, yet timely, blow to the Earthquakes' dual aspirations. Their season -- a frustrating first half marred by Frank Yallop's departure and a resolute revival show under Watson since June -- now hinges on procuring a home victory against Guatemalan side C.D. Heredia ( live, Thursday, FOX Sports 2, 10 p.m. ET) to clinch a quarterfinal place and complete their resurgence.
"It comes down to the group coming together," Watson said during a phone interview on Tuesday. "We knew we had quality, we had a good team the year before. The first part of the season didn't go our way in a bunch of areas, but the guys just went back to work. We worked a lot on getting organized on both sides of the ball. We added a couple of players of quality. In doing that, we maybe added a little bit more of a competitive environment at the club. The guys have worked hard every day and transferred that onto the game pitch on Saturdays. They've been really good. They've done everything I've asked of them."
The demands included an uptick in Champions League form after two away defeats in Montréal and in Guatemala City to open the Group 5 slate. Watson said he felt his team deserved something from both games, but the final outcomes left the Earthquakes depending on Heredia's home form to provide a path toward the top of the three-team table.
"At that point, you're relying on other teams to get the right results for you," Watson said. "That happened. Every team has won their home games to date. We followed suit with a big home win with Montréal (a 3-1 triumph on Sept. 17). Now our destiny is in our hands."
San Jose -- like Houston (advances with a point at Panamanian side Árabe Unido, Thursday, 8 P.M ET, FOX Soccer Plus) and Sporting (through with a home draw against Honduran giants C.D. Olimpia, Wednesday, 8 P.M. ET, FOX Soccer Plus) -- can seize it with a victory at Buck Shaw Stadium.
The circumstances provide the Earthquakes with plenty of encouragement. San Jose hasn't lost on home soil in its past 16 attempts in all competitions, including eight wins in nine attempts under Watson. A revamped defense bolstered by summer arrivals Clarence Goodson and Jordan Stewart has posted six shutouts in its past seven outings and has prompted a seven-match unbeaten run in all competitions since the end of August. And Heredia forward Enrique Miranda -- scorer of the winning goal in the 1-0 defeat on Aug. 28 -- reportedly left his passport at home and missed the team flight.
"A win puts us through," Watson said. "It's perseverance from our guys again. We dug ourselves a hole. We've climbed out of it to the point where our destiny is in our own hands."
In a somewhat cruel twist of fate, they now possess ample flexibility to claim it. Watson and his players would have gladly accepted the more arduous path faced by Houston and Sporting this week if it meant continued hope for the MLS postseason. They will have to settle for the opportunity to claim a tangible accomplishment instead. A victory in this fixture won't erase their disappointment about missing out on the playoffs or solve the scheduling crisis afflicting their counterparts, but it will at least provide a measure of satisfaction before their season winds to a close.