This weekend's game against the San Jose Earthquakes and Kansas City Wizards will be a rematch of the 2003 Western Conference Championship. The Quakes and Wizards have not met since that postseason match on November 15 at Spartan Stadium, where the Quakes pulled through with a 3-2 win over the Wizards in overtime after a dramatic Landon Donovan goal. The two teams will meet again this Saturday, June 26 at 7:00 p.m. at Spartan Stadium.
According to Earthquakes defender Craig Waibel, the emotions from the postseason win against Kansas City will not affect San Jose on Saturday.
"I think the losing team always has more of a grudge than the winning team," said Waibel. "After losing they always have a little more of a motive to come in and beat us. However, the winning team just celebrates and moves on. So the danger for us in this match against Kansas City is coming in and playing too lackadaisically."
The Earthquakes have been successful against the Wizards recently, with a 2-0-2 record in the 2003 regular season, as well as getting the win in the Western Conference Final. However, both teams are on unbeaten streaks at the moment. The Earthquakes are the only MLS team to remain unbeaten at home this year (2-0-3), while the Wizards have gone unbeaten their last four matches (3-0-1), all at away venues.
"Saturday's match will be a big game," said Earthquakes midfielder Richard Mulrooney. "It's important for us to get some points at home, but you have to respect Kansas City as well. They're looking to complete a five-game unbeaten streak on the road. They're playing really well."
Not only are both teams on a roll, but the result of the match may set the tone for the second half of the MLS season. Kansas City is in first place of the Western Conference and leads the third-place Quakes by only five points.
"As far as the middle of the season goes, this is huge, especially since it's a conference game," said Waibel. "This game is just about as big as it could get at this point of the season."
Quakes head coach Dominic Kinnear agrees with Waibel about the importance of Saturday's game.
"You want to be in first place at all times, especially during this part of the season," said Kinnear. "Kansas City is playing very well right now, so hopefully we can come out in the right way and put them on their back foot."
Quakes midfielder Chris Brown, who played in over 120 games for the Wizards from 1999-2003 before joining the Quakes in 2004 is especially looking forward to facing Kansas City.
"I'm excited," Brown said. "It's my first game against them even though it's been almost a year since I've been there, but I'm just taking it as any other game. It's a big game just because we're both fighting for first place."
As a member of the Kansas City roster for so long, Brown was able to provide some insight into what the Earthquakes need to do to succeed against the Wizards.
"I think we need to be strong on set pieces, especially their corner kicks and free kicks," said Brown. "With Spartan Stadium being a tight field, I think a lot of their chances will come off free kicks. We will need to be careful defensively because they like to counter attack. We need to outnumber them on the field, try to get some early goals against them, and shut down the flanks."
The Quakes will be without captain and defender Jeff Agoos, as he is suspended due to a red card received in the June 19 match against Chicago. Without Agoos, a familiar face rejoins the lineup. Landon Donovan will return to MLS play for the first time since May 29 after playing with the U.S. National Team in World Cup Qualifying. Kinnear expects to start Ramiro Corrales at left back and slide Craig Waibel in Agoos' usual defensive position. Donovan will then line up in the midfield with Mulrooney.
"The shift in the lineup this weekend will not be too different than it has been all year," said Kinnear. "We have people missing from our roster, but we also have good people to cover them. It doesn't matter who the Earthquakes have on the field, because we have confidence in all 23 of our players."
The Wizards have also been forced to shuffle their lineup as midfielder Preki has missed the entire 2004 season so far after breaking his leg in April. Preki has historically been the most dangerous Wizards player against the Quakes, scoring 10 goals and notching nine assists in 26 games. However, even without one of their best players, Kansas City has still been extremely successful this year.
"Kansas City had to change their play a little bit because Preki was a playmaker," said Brown. "Now they don't really have a playmaker, so they've had to switch their formation to play more of a 4-4-2. This year they've been playing wider and whipping crosses, and so far it's been working for them."
The Quakes know they face a daunting and important task in their next two games against the Wizards and the Los Angeles Galaxy on July 4, the two teams tied for first place in the Western Conference.
"Kansas City is a dangerous team," Waibel said. "They're blue collar, they all work hard. They all accept their roles and that's what makes them dangerous. There aren't a lot of superstars so everyone really digs in and works extra hard. To beat them, it's just a matter of matching their intensity and their work rate."
The Quakes have been able to do that in the past, and will look to better the Wizards on Saturday once again.