Given its narrow dimensions and noise-amplifying acoustics, Spartan Stadium has long provided the San Jose Earthquakes with one of the more imposing atmospheres in MLS. If the Quakes defeat the Chicago Fire on Wednesday night, and if FC Dallas lose to the Los Angeles Galaxy, it's an advantage that San Jose will enjoy throughout this year's playoffs as well.
It's an encouraging development for the Quakes as the postseason looms. Opponents have long despised playing at Spartan, and with an unbeaten league record this season (eight wins and five draws in 13 games), San Jose has once again turned their home into a fortress.
Defender Eddie Robinson feels that securing home-field advantage could be what catapults the Quakes back to the MLS Cup Final.
"I think we've gotten to the point now, where teams are little bit afraid to come here and play us," said Robinson. "Not only do we have the advantage of being at our home field and knowing how to play on it, but we have a little bit of a mental edge. That's a big factor."
Head coach Dominic Kinnear called gaining home-field advantage "a big accomplishment," and added that it's a testament to his side's determination and consistency. But the Quakes coach is also keen to maintain his team's edge through the regular season's remaining weeks.
"We still have five games left to go," said Kinnear. "The [players] are not looking at what we've done. They're looking at what we still have to do."
That means disposing of a Fire side that is in a dramatic fight for the playoffs. On the one hand, home-field advantage in the first round is still within reach for Chicago, as they occupy third place in the Eastern Conference, just two points behind D.C. United, with a game in hand.
But the Fire are also just five points ahead of the fifth-place MetroStars, and will have to make to do on Wednesday without leading scorer and Rookie of the Year candidate Chris Rolfe, who is sidelined with a left groin strain.
Even without Rolfe, Chicago possesses plenty of firepower in attack. Forwards Lubos Reiter and Andy Herron are a dangerous tandem, as are midfielders Thiago and Justin Mapp. But according to Robinson, perhaps a bigger obstacle is a lack of familiarity.
"We haven't seen [the Fire] in four or five months (since a 2-1 Chicago win on April 16)," said Robinson. "They're not familiar to us. They've got some good players and some big guys, so set pieces are going to be important."
Equally important to the Quakes will be the availability of defender Danny Califf. San Jose's defensive leader scored the equalizer in last Saturday's 2-1 win against Chivas USA, but paid the price when he took a boot to the head courtesy of Chivas defender Ezra Hendrickson, giving Califf a concussion.
The San Jose defender did some running on the side during Tuesday's training session and reported no ill effects, but Kinnear remains wary of his player's condition, stating that Califf's inclusion in the lineup will be a game-time decision. If Califf can't go, Ryan Cochrane would slide into the center of defense.
As for the forward line, Kinnear has opted to give Brian Ching his first start since returning from the ranks of the injured. Ronald Cerritos will start the game on the bench despite enjoying something of a renaissance this season with six goals and eight assists. When asked about the change, Kinnear was short on details, saying "Ching has been playing well, and I've decided to give him a run in the team."
Ching's return from surgery to repair a torn hamstring has been borderline miraculous, and there is a temptation to think the same about San Jose's run to the top of the Western Conference standings. But Califf said his side's stellar play is easy to explain.
"We've been consistent and other teams haven't," said Califf. "We haven't played our best every game, but we've found a way to get results and that's what championship teams do."
Jeff Carlisle is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.