After stumbling through the first half of the Major League Soccer season with only four wins, the time has come for the San Jose Earthquakes to begin resembling the team that won MLS Cups in 2001 and 2003 if they hope to succeed in 2004.
And they have to start Saturday, when they face their Western Conference nemesis Colorado Rapids in a nationally-televised game at Spartan Stadium (ESPN2, 1 p.m. PT). The Quakes (4-6-5, 17 points) are 0-3-2 since a 3-1 home win against the MetroStars on June 12 and have slipped into last place in the Western Conference last week for the first time since 2000.
Third-place Colorado (5-4-6, 21 pts.), which on Wednesday entertains conference-leading Los Angeles (9-5-3, 30 pts.), is 3-0-1 in its last four matches against San Jose, including a 1-0 home win on April 24. And the Rapids, anchored defensively by former popular Quakes goalkeeper Joe Cannon, have won their last two games at Spartan, where their overall record is 7-8-1.
"Saturday's game is extremely important for us," said coach Dominic Kinnear, whose Quakes trail fourth-place Dallas (5-5-5) by three points. "A win not only gets us back on track, but also would move us closer to Colorado in the standings. We haven't played particularly well up to this point, but we also haven't been getting the breaks and referees' calls haven't exactly been tilted in our favor. Our focus now has to be on the second half of the season and, when I look around the locker room and see the great players we have, I'm confident this team is going to be up for the challenge."
San Jose forward/midfielder Landon Donovan, who was with the U.S. national team Saturday in Chicago along with teammates Brian Ching and Brian Mullan during the Quakes' 2-0 road loss to the MetroStars on July 10, admits there is pressure on the team to start producing.
"I'd be lying if I said there isn't pressure," Donovan said. "The time has come to see what we're made of. We're only 15 games into the season, and we have time to turn things around. But we have to start doing it, not talking about it. It keeps coming up that we have one or two games in hand on teams, but it doesn't matter unless you win."
Donovan noted that it's vital that the Quakes string some wins together and move up in the standings before the U.S. and Canada play World Cup qualifiers over the next three months.
"If we don't," Donovan said, "It's going to be tough down the stretch."
Donovan will miss several games for the Quakes with the U.S. team, as will goalkeeper Pat Onstad and forward Dwayne De Rosario while with the Frank Yallop-coached Canadian national team. Ching also could get a call from U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena.
Mullan said the Quakes have to start playing with a little more authority.
"I feel like we're playing pretty well and doing a good job pressuring teams, but the luck hasn't been going our way," he said. "It's time we start creating our own luck through hard work and tougher tackles."
Ching said it's important that the team doesn't overreact to its sluggish start.
"We must remain calm, play our game and return to doing what we do well," said Ching, who leads the team in scoring with five goals and 11 points. "We're not a last place team, that is something we all understand."
SOLID PERFORMANCE: Ching played well as a substitute for the U.S. national team during Sunday's 1-1 draw in a friendly against Poland at Soldier Field in Chicago. He replaced captain Brian McBride at forward in the 65th minute and made an impact with his presence in the box. He nearly scored late in the game when he ran onto a pass from Donovan and unloaded a shot that was blocked by Polish goalkeeper Artur Boruc.
"I think Brian really helped himself a lot with the way he played Sunday," said Donovan, who earned an assist in the 88th minute when Carlos Bocanegra headed his corner kick past Boruc from eight yards out for the tying goal. "He was extremely dangerous the whole time he played, creating some chances and coming very close to scoring.
"I think Bruce likes him. He has really improved since he came (to the Quakes) last season. He's incredible holding the ball; he makes it easy for (DaMarcus) Beasley and me to run off of him and find space, and he finds us. He's also very strong and excellent in the air. If he keeps doing as well as he has, he'll get his chance."
Ching said he was "pretty happy" with his performance.
"It would have been a lot better had I scored that goal," Ching said. "In hindsight, I probably should have tried to dribble around the goalkeeper. I knew he would be coming off his line and I tried to shoot the ball up toward the far post, anticipating he would be sliding. He stayed on his feet and made a good play.
"I talked to Bruce before the game and he told me I'm definitely in the pool of players for upcoming games. Hopefully he'll select me to be on the team for one of the qualifiers."
Mullan played the final 18 minutes on the right wing, but didn't see much of the ball.
"Playing for the national team was incredible," Mullan said. "It was a dream fulfilled.
"It was pretty nerve-wracking. Hopefully I'll get another opportunity and make better of it."
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.