SAN JOSE, Calif. - The San Jose Earthquakes are on the cusp of an unusual milestone as they head into Saturday's match against the MetroStars. If they can claim a victory against the Eastern Conference outfit, the Quakes will have equaled their win total from all of last season.
Of course there were those prognosticators who ventured that San Jose would be lucky to win half as many games as they did a year ago. The team had lost All-Stars Jeff Agoos, Richard Mulrooney and Landon Donovan, as well as major contributors Ramiro Corrales and Ronnie Ekelund. While talented players like Ricardo Clark and Brad Davis were brought in to fill the gap, they certainly didn't have the pedigree of those who left.
But the Quakes have not only survived, they've thrived, and could yet challenge for the Western Conference title. While none of the San Jose players are surprised at their success, there were some who were unaware of just how far they had come.
"I had no idea," said defender Eddie Robinson of his team's win total relative to last year. "I just attribute [our success] to the mental toughness on the part of the players."
Given the cast of relative unknowns that make up the Quakes' roster, there's more than a temptation to think that San Jose is punching above their weight. But head coach Dominic Kinnear believes that his side has been well worth their spot in the standings, especially given the injuries and international absences that the team has been forced to overcome.
"I think we deserve 100 percent to be where we are," said Kinnear. "And I think we've had our excuses where this guy is hurt or another is missing. I think we've come together nicely, and the guys like each other. But first and foremost, we have a good team."
The hallmark of any good side is its depth, and that will be tested again on Saturday. Defender Ryan Cochrane, who looked set to retain his spot in the starting lineup, sprained his right ankle during a scrimmage on Friday, and has been ruled out of any action against the MetroStars. Danny Califf, who has been suspended for two out of the last three matches, will take Cochrane's place in the center of defense.
The loss of Cochrane for the Earthquakes isn't likely to garner much sympathy from the Metros, who will be without three midfield starters. Reigning league MVP Amado Guevara underwent surgery on Wednesday to repair a torn meniscus. Michael Bradley is suspended, and Youri Djorkaeff's tender hamstring has put his participation in doubt as well.
With the Red-and-Black coming off a stoppage time loss in Columbus, Saturday's encounter has all the look of a "trap" game for San Jose. But after spending the last four games on the road, the Quakes are determined to defend their home turf and that begins with respecting their opponent.
"It's tough for them that they don't have those guys," said captain Wade Barrett. "But they have a quality team, so we're not underestimating the guys they are bringing in."
"You try not to think about who is missing because then you are thinking about the game too much," added Kinnear. "Most importantly, we have to worry about what we're doing. I told the guys 'Let's go. Let's get after them.' It doesn't matter who the players are. It's a battle of wills."
One player the MetroStars will be bringing is former Earthquakes defender Jeff Agoos. The veteran's arrival in 2001 coincided with the turnaround of a franchise that was once the laughing stock of MLS. The former San Jose captain presided over two MLS Cups during his tenure, providing stellar play in the back as well as unparalleled leadership.
Chances are that reception for Agoos will be kinder than that of Landon Donovan, who was showered with boos every time he touched the ball when he returned to San Jose. But if midfielder Dwayne De Rosario had his way, Agoos would be treated the same.
"If the fans could treat [Agoos] like they treated Landon, that would be great for us," the Canadian international said with a grin. "Nothing against Agoos, but he's a former [San Jose] player. [The fans] should pick a guy every game."
But when the subject turned to Agoos' contribution in San Jose, De Rosario had nothing but praise for his former teammate.
"[Agoos] was everything that you needed in a captain," said De Rosario. "He filled his role well, and he left here with nothing but positives."
If the Quakes can win their last match heading into the All-Star break, they same can be said about their season so far.
Jeff Carlisle is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.