SAN JOSE - As the San Jose Earthquakes have ascended the MLS standings over the last four months, they've done so with a consistent lineup. But the homestanding Quakes won't have that luxury this Saturday, when they take on Real Salt Lake at Spartan Stadium.
While injury, suspension, and international duty have tested San Jose's depth over the last 20 games, they have essentially relied on a core of 15 players that have attained a remarkable record of 14-1-5 during that span. But with national team commitments claiming five starters, and suspension and injury accounting for two more players, San Jose head coach Dominic Kinnear will be forced to cull the depths of his roster like never before. Despite the reduced numbers, Kinnear showed little concern about the situation following Friday's practice.
"You can't worry about what's happened," said Kinnear. "You have to worry about what's going to happen on Saturday night. You still have to play. [The league] isn't going to stop the game because guys aren't here."
The result is a starting XI that bears little resemblance to the side that has all but clinched the Supporters' Shield. With Ronald Cerritos likely ruled out by an ankle injury, Kinnear will start with a forward tandem of Julian Nash and Roger Levesque.
Levesque's start on Saturday will be the first in league play of his career, and will constitute his first spell of MLS action in almost two years. But the Stanford product hasn't been idle in the interim. Levesque saw plenty of playing time during two loan spells with the Seattle Sounders, the latest of which ended with Seattle claiming the USL First Division (second tier) championship. While the lack of playing time with Quakes has been disappointing, Levesque feels his time in Seattle has had its benefits.
"There's no substitute for game experience," said Levesque. "That was the big thing, along with holding up the ball, and being in front of the net. The more you're in front of the net, the more they go in."
The San Jose backline will undergo some significant changes as well. With Wade Barrett and Danny Califf away with the U.S. national team, and Eddie Robinson suspended, Kinnear will turn to Chris Aloisi at right back, rookie Kevin Goldthwaite at left back, with Ryan Cochrane and Kelly Gray in the middle.
Goldthwaite received his MLS baptism last week in the Quakes' 2-0 victory against New England, and notched an assist on his very first touch in the game. It wasn't the first time the club's second-round draft pick had made such a first impression.
"In college it was first touch, first goal," said Goldthwaite. "Hopefully the assist will lead to greater things."
Like Levesque, Goldthwaite relied on a loan stint to a USL side, in his case the Portland Timbers, to sharpen his game. The Notre Dame product played all over the field while in the Pacific Northwest, but mostly in defense, where he his games opposite Levesque never revealed the fact that they were teammates.
"We played against each four times in the 12 games I was there," said Goldthwaite. "[Levesque] got in some cheap shot elbows."
The Quakes' will be taking on an RSL side that can't wait for the season to end. The expansion side has lost 10 games in a row, and will be missing Eddie Pope, Gustavo Cabrera, and Robert Scarlett to international duty. But even with a subpar season from Clint Mathis, Kinnear feels that Real still bring some potent weapons to the mix.
"They have Mathis and they have Andy Williams, guys that can hurt you if you give them time," said Kinnear. "[Melvin] Tarley is a handful as well. He likes to run behind the defense, so we have to be really honest with our defending."
That defensive effort will include help from midfield, where Danny O'Rourke's inclusion for the absent Ricardo Clark is the only change. Given the imperative of cutting off Mathis' service, Kinnear feels the play of his midfield will dictate the Quakes' fortunes.
"Winning second balls will be huge again [on Saturday]," said Kinnear. "So I think that the midfield will be the key for us."
Jeff Carlisle is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.