Losing three of their four top scorers and starting goalkeeper to the U.S. and Canadian national teams for World Cup qualifying for two upcoming games, the Earthquakes are going to have to rely on the likes of forwards Brian Mullan, Jamil Walker and Chris Brown, and midfielders Ronnie Ekelund, Richard Mulrooney, Ramiro Corrales and Ian Russell to generate an attack, and Jon Conway to protect the nets.
Brian Ching and Landon Donovan, who between them have contributed 17 of the team's 33 goals along with 13 assists, are with the U.S. team preparing for two CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers, and goalkeeper Pat Onstad and forward Dwayne De Rosario are training with Canada for a pair of qualifying matches. De Rosario is the team's fourth leading scorer (4 goals/3assists/11 points) behind Ching (11/4/26), Donovan (6/9/21) and Mulrooney (1/8/12).
Saturday, the U.S. (0-0-1 in qualifying) entertains El Salvador (1-0), and Canada (0-1) is home against Honduras. Next Wednesday, the U.S. visits Panama (0-1), and Canada will be tested at Costa Rica (0-1).
The Quakes (8-7-7, 31 pts.), last in the five-team Western Conference but only one point out of fourth, two out of third and four behind front-runners Los Angeles and Kansas City, face New England on Saturday at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, following the U.S.-Panama game. They return to Spartan Stadium next Wednesday against Columbus.
U.S. national team head coach Bruce Arena doesn't plan on making Donovan or Ching available to the Quakes in Foxboro. His concern is qualifying his team for the 2006 World Cup in Germany, not whether the Quakes make the playoffs (the top four teams in the East and West conferences advance to the post season). Still, you would think there still may be a remote chance Arena would allow Ching to dress for San Jose if the Quakes' star doesn't play or is used sparingly against El Salvador.
There are three other forwards on Arena's 23-man roster: Brian McBride (Fulton FC, England), Conor Casey (FSV Mainz, Germany) and Eddie Johnson (Dallas Burn). Clint Mathis (Hannover 96, Germany) and Donovan are central midfielders who also can play forward.
Ching, who joined the Quakes last year after spending the 2002 season with Seattle in the A-League, made an impact in only his third national team appearance on Aug. 18. He replaced McBride in the 61st minute and scored a late goal off of a Donovan assist to give the U.S. a 1-1 tie against Jamaica in Kingston.
"Brian did very well," Arena said this week, "But one game doesn't completely finalize my opinion on a player. I need to see him over a period of time. He wasn't quite at 100 percent when he played (Saturday for the Quakes), so we need to make sure he's healthy if we're going to consider him Saturday."
Ching, who since becoming a Quake in 2003 has 17 goals and 6 assists in 37 regular-season games, is making a run at the MLS scoring title. He is second to the MetroStars' Amado Guevara, who has 28 points. On their heels is the Galaxy's Carlos Ruiz (24), tied with Ching in goals scored with 11, Kansas City's Davy Arnaud (24) and Chicago's Damani Ralph and the Revolution's Pat Noonan with 22 apiece.
The Quakes, who have eight matches remaining, also are faced with being without Donovan, Ching, De Rosario and Onstad for their crucial Oct. 9 home match against conference rival Kansas City, the same day the U.S. and Canada play qualifiers against El Salvador and Honduras, respectively.
MULLAN'S THE MAN: Mullan, who has three goals and six assists, is the only Quake among the team's top four scorers who will be available against New England and next Wednesday against Columbus at Spartan Stadium. Either Brown, acquired by the Quakes from New England in April, or second-year forward Walker are likely to be teamed up front with Mullan. Brown has 19 goals and 11 assists in his five-plus seasons in MLS.
A problem, however, is that Walker has appeared in only six games this season, Brown five. Brown has one goal, Walker none.
Russell, who may fill in at right flank for Mullan, has not scored a point in 14 games this season, including nine starts. Russell, who has five goals and 19 assists in his four-plus seasons with the Quakes, has not had an assist since last November, and hasn't notched a goal since June 9, 2001.
Another midfield option for Coach Dominic Kinnear is U.S. Under-20 national team member Arturo Alvarez, who has one goal in 10 matches this year.
Corrales may become more of a factor in the attack with his frequent runs forward, but will need to improve his accuracy. He has taken 25 shots, fourth most on the team, but has been on target just six times and has one goal.
As for the last line of defense, the 6-foot-6 Conway will be making only his third MLS start of the season on Saturday, and the 16th in his MLS career. He has a 1-1 record, losing 1-0 to Columbus on May 29 and defeating the MetroStars 3-1 on June 12. He has faced only six shots.
CONFERENCE SHOWDOWNS: After their games against New England and Columbus, the Quakes' remaining six matches are against conference foes. They play at Los Angeles (Sept. 11) and Kansas City (Sept. 18), entertain the Galaxy (Sept. 25), travel to Colorado (Oct. 2) and play their home finale against Kansas City (Oct. 9) before closing out at Dallas (Oct. 16).
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.