It was just another day at the office for coach Dominic Kinnear and the San Jose Earthquakes: a fast-paced, energetic, entertaining 90 minutes of professional soccer and a 1-1 draw with the Chicago Fire last Saturday night at Soldier Field.
The "glass-is-half-empty" guys would say they stole a point in Chicago; the "glass-is-half-full" folks would say it's nice to get out of town with something. It was a game full of excitement. Brian Ching scored his league-leading seventh goal of the year, with lots of help from the noggin of Chicago defender Evan Whitfield. There was a probable flop by Ante Razov in the penalty area that was not punnished with a yellow card. There was a rather inconsequential bump of Razov by Craig Waibel that was called a penalty - in the last six minutes of regulation time, no less. And finally, the P.K. was stopped by Pat Onstad, who is now two for his last two in penalty kick stops against Razov.
Whatever your perspective, it was a one-point night, and it is the last stop on the "Quakes Express" before they make a three-game West Coast Swing in the next two weeks. It begins this Saturday night with a game at Spartan Stadium against the Kansas City Wizards, who are now tied with the Los Angeles Galaxy for first place in the Western Conference. The Quakes then travel to L.A. for a Home Depot Center game against the Galaxy on the fourth of July, and hustle back to Spartan to take on the Dallas Burn July 7. You might call it the "Fortnight for First Place."
With two games in hand on both the Galaxy and the Wizards, a successful run through the next two weeks and the Quakes could be setting the tone for the second half of the season.
"We have three games to send a message, not only to the rest of the league, but to ourselves, about how good we are," says Kinnear, who watched his team handle the Galaxy 4-2, in late May.
And to add a little pressure, the Quakes meet the Wizards without captain Jeff Agoos, who was so upset about the late P.K. call, he got himself a couple of a quick yellow cards from referee Alex Prus, and was asked to leave the game early and not suit up for this week's match.
"It hurts when you lose your captain, especially a guy like Jeff Agoos," said Onstad. "Jeff is a huge leader for us. We don't have a lot of players like him on this team. It would be like losing Richard Mulrooney, the same type of player. It'll be tough for us next week."
It is a good time for Landon Donovan to return to the squad, after spending two weeks with the U.S. national team, as they advanced into the second round of CONCACAF regional World Cup qualifying. You may recall the last regular season game Landon played against the Wizards - he scored the first half trick in club history. Then, he scored the game winner in the late stages of overtime against K.C. in the playoffs, a goal that sent the Quakes to MLS Cup 2003.
"We will miss Goose (Agoos)," Kinnear said, "But it'll be nice to have Landon back."
It should be a fun two weeks, that's for sure. And despite the injuries, suspensions, and other distractions, this team is 4-3-4 and within five points of first place.
"We have our work cut out for us," Kinnear acknowledged. "You like it that way. You like to be challenged, whether it's the early part of the season or the middle or the end."
Onstad says team chemistry allows them to overcome the obstacles and create the opportunities. "As a unit," he said, "we're really good in the dressing room. Everyone gets along really well, and battles for each other. Hopefully that bodes well for the rest of the season."
By the end of this three-game sequence, the Quakes will be just short of the half-way point of the season. And they'll know a lot about where they stand in the West.
"We get K.C. at home," says Kinnear. "We'll look to come out and attack them right away and challenge them. Then go down to L.A. on the fourth of July and make our own sort of fireworks."
Not much different than most other days this team goes to work.
John Shrader has been the voice of the Earthquakes since 1996 and has worked in television and radio in the Bay Area for the past 20 years.