Shrader: Quakes are up to the task

If there is anything American soccer fans should have learned about the 2005 San Jose Earthquakes: don't underestimate them, don't ever consider them not up to the task. This week's task is to play Real Salt Lake in Spartan Stadium, in their final regular season home game, without six regulars - four with the U.S national team (Wade Barrett, Danny Califf, Ricardo Clark, Brian Ching), one with the Venezuelan National team (Alejandro Moreno), and the other (Eddie Robinson) sitting for a second game because of suspension.

It's not just a game against one of the two struggling expansion teams, it is an opportunity at history. The Quakes are 9-0-6 this year in Spartan Stadium; no team in the history of the league has finished a regular season with an unbeaten home record.

"I think it would be a great thing to do," said coach Dominic Kinnear. "If we could get a piece of history, it would be a wonderful thing to do."

Goalie Pat Onstad, who leads the league with 12 shutouts and a 0.93 GAA: "I think it's important, and I think the most important thing at this stage of the game has less to do with the record and more to do with the fact we have only two games before we start the playoffs. You don't want to get into a habit of losing."

The Quakes are in the midst of a run that has not been seen in the history of the league. They are 14-1-5 in their last 20 games, 10-0-2 in their last 12. If they don't lose again, the Quakes (17-4-9 with 60 points) would be the first team in Major League Soccer's ten years to lose only four times. And only the 1998 Los Angeles Galaxy finished with more points in a season, with 68.

These kinds of streaks are perpetuated by a little bit of luck, a whole lot of intensity and a consistency that, midfielder Mark Chung said, it not easy to find.

"I've been on some great teams where we would smash teams and then the next game we'd trash ourselves. This team has been very consistent. If one or two players are not having the best game, the others pick up the slack."

Five players have scored at least five goals and nine players have scored at least twice.

"It is hard to contain us and defend us," Chung said. "Goals are coming from the right back, the left back, the center backs, forwards and midfielders. I think the only person not to score right now is Pat Onstad."

It is good players playing well across the board, and sometimes good players are forced to watch from the sidelines. It is the coach's responsibility to keep everybody happy.

"I think winning makes it a lot easier," Kinnear said. "If the team wins, there's hardly time for complaints. We're always looking for the next challenge."

The next big challenge is the playoffs, where the Quakes hope to hoist the MLS Cup for the third time in the last five seasons.

"There are big expectations for us because we're on top of the whole league," said Chung. And anything less than a championship would be quite a disappointment.

"Sure it would be," Chung said, "not only to the fans but to ourselves."

That was a goal that would have been hard to sell at the end of May, when the team was 3-3-4. Kinnear thought all along that his team had a chance to be good, but he's certainly not trying to convince anybody that he knew this team would lose just once since May 28.

"I knew we would be very competitive," he said. "Sometimes, though, I look at it and I realize we've lost only four times in 30 games and that's an eye-opener."

Sixty points, the runaway leader in the Western Conference, the best record in the league, the best defense in the league, a 12-game unbeaten streak in progress, no losses at home in their first 15 games in Spartan Stadium (and 17 straight over two seasons). It's all good for now, but won't mean much in a couple of weeks.

"At the end of the day it's about winning championships," says Onstad. "It's the four games in the playoffs that will matter most."

The Earthquakes - to a man - certainly feel they're up to that task.

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. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.

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