True Western test awaits Earthquakes

No one can accuse the San Jose Earthquakes of a "June swoon".

When the month began, the Western Conference was shaping up as a two-horse race, with FC Dallas and the Los Angeles Galaxy seemingly set to run away from the competition. But San Jose, courtesy of a five-match unbeaten run, have surged back into the conference mix. Whether the Quakes are contenders or pretenders will be tested this Saturday when they take on Dallas in the Cotton Bowl.

Given the amount of talent that San Jose lost in the offseason, many predicted a year of struggle for the two-time MLS champion, and that was certainly the case early on. But the acquisitions of Mark Chung and Kelly Gray, as well as the return to health of Danny Califf, saw San Jose play its best soccer of the season during the month of June, culminating in a three-game winning streak.

None of this comes as a surprise to defender Eddie Robinson, who says that the current edition of the Quakes compares favorably with the team's championship past.

"At full strength, I think this team is right there with the 2001 team," said Robinson. "The guys that we've added are guys that are experienced, guys who have been around the league. And [coaches Dominic Kinnear, John Doyle and Tim Hanley] make it easy to succeed here."

At first glance, Saturday's matchup looks like a chance to test further the Quakes' championship pedigree. But San Jose was quick to quash any talk that Saturday's match is a "statement" game that will have implications down the road.

"I just look at it as another conference game," said Kinnear. "We're on a good run right now, but [Dallas] have been getting results like crazy too. Early on, the results weren't going our way and now they're falling into place. We're just hoping that our good luck of results continues."

There is also fact that both teams will be missing considerable portions of their lineup due to Gold Cup duty. Already missing Carlos Ruiz and Eddie Johnson due to injury, the Hoops will also be minus defender Greg Vanney. But it seems that no matter who coach Colin Clarke puts in his lineup, the performance level doesn't drop. Rookies Abe Thompson and Aaron Pitchkolan have chipped in with timely goals, while Ronnie O'Brien has maintained his All-Star form.

The Quakes, meanwhile, got their first taste of what life will be like without MLS assist leader Brad Davis during their midweek win against Colorado. Now they'll be without Wednesday's goal-scoring hero, Dwayne De Rosario, who left to join up with the Canadian national team.

Kinnear has several options in replacing the dynamic Canadian. One is to move Mark Chung into the center of midfield and plug in Ian Russell or Wes Hart on the left. The other is to swap in rookie Danny O'Rourke. While Kinnear was playing his cards somewhat close to the vest, O'Rourke admitted that the Quakes' head man will likely rely on him to fill De Rosario's spot.

If Kinnear does insert O'Rourke into the lineup, it will mark the rookie's first spell of action in more than a month. The Ohio native had begun the season well, but a steady slide in form saw O'Rourke taken out of the lineup after a poor performance in Los Angeles.

"I was definitely shocked," said O'Rourke of his demotion. "But I didn't want to sit back and be bitter, be [ticked] off at life, or mad at myself or anybody else. I just had to roll with the punches and keep working hard."

That he did, and while no player likes to be taken out of the lineup, O'Rourke admitted that his time on the bench had its positives.

"It's actually good to sit on the sidelines and see how things move when you're not in the moment," said O'Rourke. "I've been able to see some of my teammates' tendencies, so it definitely helped."

According to Kinnear, O'Rourke's study habits have paid off. "As the reserve games have gone, I think [O'Rourke] has gotten better with each one," said Kinnear.

During the last month, the same could be said of O'Rourke's teammates, and Kinnear is hoping this upward trend continues.

Jeff Carlisle is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.


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