The defending Major Soccer League-champion San Jose Earthquakes have won back-to-back games only once this season: 2-1 at Dallas on May 15 and 4-2 against visiting Los Angeles on May 22.
Resting in third place in the five-team Western Conference, the Quakes (4-3-5, 17 points) could use another pair of wins against the same teams, only this time in reverse, when they visit the conference-leading Galaxy (7-5-3, 24) in an Independence Day showdown Sunday (7 p.m., FSN-TV, KLIV radio) at The Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. followed by a July 7 midweek match against Dallas (4-4-4, 16) at Spartan Stadium.
The Quakes are coming off a pair of come-from-behind 1-1 ties against second-place Kansas City (6-4-4, 22) and Eastern Conference rival Chicago. Considering they have played three fewer games than Los Angeles and two less than Kansas City, the Quakes would be in very good shape by earning the maximum six points in their next two assignments. Four points would be OK, three fine, two passable.
"With the parity in MLS, we can't afford to let anyone get too far ahead of us," said Quakes' midfielder Richard Mulrooney, who produced the tying goal in the tie with Kansas City. "We're used to being in first place, and that's where we're planning to be at the end of the season."
Should the Quakes stumble in their next two games, however, they could find themselves in last place when they visit nemesis Colorado (3-3-6, 15) on July 17. Colorado could move into third place Wednesday with a win against the East-leading MetroStars in New Jersey.
If the first half of the 30-game season is an indication, both conference races are going to go down to the wire. The MetroStars (5-4-4, 19) are the only team in the East with a winning record, and New England (3-7-3, 12) is on the bottom. The last place teams in each conference miss the playoffs.
Only one team has strung together more than two wins this season. Columbus went 4-0-0 between May 15 and June 6, but the Crew (4-5-3, 15) also has a three-game losing streak. Other than Columbus and Dallas, which lost four consecutive games during one stretch, there hasn't been a team that has lost more than two in a row.
The Quakes have not had a losing streak, but they have twice tied games consecutively.
Return to Carson: In their last visit to the Home Depot Center, which opened in 2003, the Quakes defeated Chicago 4-2 in MLS Cup. Their other HDC visits haven't been as pleasant, however, having gone 0-2-1 against the Galaxy. The Quakes are only 3-10-2 against the Galaxy in Southern California since the MLS's inception in 1996.
While the Quakes are 9-18-4 overall in their series against the Galaxy, they have won the two most significant meetings between the teams. They defeated Los Angeles 2-1 in overtime in MLS Cup 2001 in Columbus, and eliminated the Galaxy in last year's two-game quarterfinals by overcoming a 4-0 aggregate deficit to win 5-4 in overtime. The Galaxy had won the opening game 2-0 at home and took a 2-0 lead in the return match at Spartan Stadium before the Quakes erupted with five unanswered goals.
Not only did the Quakes knock Los Angeles out of the playoffs, they went on to win the title match on the Galaxy's home turf. It could very well come down to another conference playoff showdown between the teams for a berth in MLS Cup 2004 on Nov. 14 at the HDC.
Agoos back: After allowing only one goal against Kansas City with veteran center back Jeff Agoos serving a one-game suspension, the Quakes will welcome back their captain for Sunday's match. Agoos has been the anchor of the Quakes' defense since he was acquired from D.C. United prior to the 2001 season.
Agoos and his fellow defenders will have their hands full, as always, against Los Angeles, the MLS pacesetter with 28 goals. The Galaxy has four of the league's top scorers: Alejandro Moreno and Carlos Ruiz are tied for second with 6 goals, 2 assists and 14 points apiece, while Jovan Kirovski (6/1, 13) is sixth and Andreas Herzog (4/4, 12) is eighth.
Recognizing Ching: Quakes second-year forward Brian Ching, the A-League's second-leading scorer in 2002 with 16 goals, eight assists and 40 points with the Seattle Sounders, enters this week as MLS's scoring leader with 7 goals and 15 points. Ching, the only player in MLS history from Hawaii, will be acknowledged on Hawaiian Night prior to the Quakes' game against Dallas. The first 7,500 fans attending the game will receive leis.
Dallas dominated: The Quakes have won seven consecutive games and nine of the last 10 against Dallas. This will be the final season the Quakes will be playing the Burn. The club is conducting a contest for fans to guess a new moniker that will coincide with the team moving into its new 20,000-seat soccer specific stadium next year at the Frisco Soccer & Entertainment Center.
Dave Payne is a freelance soccer writer. He previously covered soccer for 33 years for the San Jose Mercury News. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not represent those of Major League Soccer or its teams.