Over the course of the San Jose Earthquakes’ first two competitive matches of 2014, head coach Mark Watson has been moved by necessity to use a three-man backline for nearly an hour’s worth of playing time.
With so many defenders missing in action, the question now is whether Watson will be forced to make that move before the opening whistle Wednesday night, when the Earthquakes play the second leg of their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal against top-seeded Mexican side Toluca (8 pm ET, FOX Sports 2, Univision Deportes).
Watson and the Quakes prospered in the second half of 2013 after the additions of center back Clarence Goodson and left back Jordan Stewart. But with those two players potentially among a raft of defenders unavailable due to injury or suspension, San Jose may have to get creative, lineup-wise, in front of goalkeeper Jon Busch. Of course, playing with three at the back has led to some of San Jose's best moments this year.
“I might have a word,” San Jose forward Alan Gordon said Saturday of the three-back alignment, which has led to a combined three goals in 54 minutes against Toluca and Real Salt Lake. “It seems to be working out. Let’s go with what works.”
Given that San Jose know a scoreless performance Wednesday will leave them knocked out on the first tiebreaker, away goals, pushing forward from the start with an extra attacker might seem more attractive than normal.
“It’s not an ideal situation, but we’ll figure out who’s healthy and who can play, and we’ll put something together for the game,” Watson said Saturday.
Joked Gordon: “I can play center back. I think that’s my calling.”
As Gordon knows, things are most dicey in the middle of the pitch. Victor Bernardez is suspended due to yellow-card accumulation in the tournament, Goodson did not make the game-day roster over the weekend against Real Salt Lake due to a right calf strain and Jason Hernandez was forced off in the 67th minute of the RSL match with a non-contact injury that caused referee Jorge Luna to signal immediately for a stretcher.
A Quakes spokesman said Saturday night that Hernandez had received a preliminary diagnosis of a left quadriceps strain. The spokesman said Tuesday via e-mail that “no decisions have been made at this point” and that all injured players will be considered “game-day decisions.” No update was given on Hernandez.
Watson said Saturday he thought it “unlikely” either Goodson or Stewart would play in Toluca, but Goodson told MLSsoccer.com that he was optimistic of being available. Even if either Goodson or Hernandez does make the starting lineup, his partner is likely to be either veteran Ty Harden, who was on the bench Saturday but is still working back from season-ending hip surgery last June, and rookie Joe Sofia, a second-round pick in this year’s SuperDraft.
Things are not much better on the flanks. Stewart (right hamstring strain) was pessimistic about his chances for playing, which likely means another start for Shaun Francis. On the right, Brandon Barklage, who has been troubled by a thigh problem, rated himself as a “50-50” possibility. Cordell Cato, a winger by trade, filled in against RSL and may be called upon again.
“We’ll take whoever’s healthy, and we’ll go after it,” Busch said. “We’re always up for challenges in this locker room, and it’s just another challenge. We know what’s in front of us and what we’ve got to do.”