San Jose Earthquakes vs. Deportivo Toluca FC
Buck Shaw Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif.
CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, first leg
March 11, 2014; 10 pm ET/7 pm PT (FOX Sports 2, Univision Deportes)
The San Jose Earthquakes will have a distinctively more European feel to them this year, having acquired three players from across the pond in Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi, Andreas Görlitz, and now Yannick Djaló. However, only Pierazzi is likely to see a start against Toluca, as Görlitz is working his way back from a preseason injury and Djaló’s paperwork is unlikely to clear in time for him to feature in the game.
That means the Quakes will need to rely heavily on their proven MLS talent to get the job done in this series. While there's no doubting the quality of some of the Earthquakes veterans, in particular Chris Wondolowski and their World Cup-bound center back pairing, this will be no easy ask against once of the Liga MX's best attacking sides.
Toluca led the league with 33 regular-season goals in the 2013 Apertura and are only two goals (and three points) off the pace of leaders Cruz Azul this time around. They boast a varied, talented front four (more below) in their 4-2-3-1 formation and international experience all across the pitch.
Solely based on seeding and form, the Mexican team would appear to be the heavy favorites. However, the Quakes are certainly suited for the rough-and-tumble style of play in CONCACAF and anyone who's followed MLS over the past couple years will know all too well about their ability to conjure up some magic when all appears to be lost.
For a more detailed look at what to expect from the Quakes this season, be sure to check out the Armchair Analyst's 2014 season preview.
How they qualified:
- San Jose: Group 5 winner, seed No. 8 (2-2-0; 6 pts, 4 GF/2 GA)
- Toluca: Group 6 winner, seed No. 1 (4-0-0; 12 pts, 15 GF/4 GA)
The Opponent – What you need to know about Toluca
Coach: José Cardozo (Paraguay)
Position: 2nd in Liga MX (7-1-2; 22 pts, 16 GF/5 GA; Last five games: W-L-W-W-W)
Best CCL/Champions' Cup finish: Winners, 2003
Star Player: Issac Brizuela
Believe it or not, Brizuela (pictured above, left), one of the stars of this year’s Liga MX and a Mexican international on the rise, is returning to play in his hometown. He revealed last year that he was born in San Jose, and at the time had been in touch with both the US and Mexican federations about representing them internationally. Soon after, though, he opted to play for El Tri in the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Nowadays, Brizuela is the talk of Mexico after helping drive Toluca’s offense to a league-best 33 goals in the Apertura 2013 tournament with a four-goal, four-assist contribution in 16 appearances. He looks to be on a similar pace in the Clausura, having totaled three goals and two assists over nine appearances so far.
You may recognize: Sinha
He’s not technically a one-club man, but he might as well be. The diminutive Brazil-born playmaker has been with Toluca since 1999 (15 years of his 19-year pro career), has made more than 500 appearances for the team and won five league titles and one CONCACAF Champions' Cup. USMNT fans will also recognize him from his time with the Mexican national team — he has more than 50 caps and netted the winning goal in a 2005 World Cup qualifier between the two teams at the Estadio Azteca.
Even at age 37, Sinha (right) is still going strong, having started nine of Toluca’s 10 Liga MX matches since the Clausura 2014 season started in January and has contributed to their strong form with a pair of assists. San Jose’s central midfielders will have to keep a close eye on him to make sure he doesn’t use his superb vision and technique to exploit any potential defensive holes.
However, his status for the game is also worth monitoring, as he was substituted with a knee injury in the first half of Toluca's win on Sunday over Puebla. Though the injury does not appear to be serious, his prognosis for the game is still unclear.
- San Jose (4-4-2): Busch; Barklage, Bernárdez, Goodson, Stewart; Harris, Cronin, Pierazzi; Salinas; Lenhart, Wondolowski
- Toluca (4-2-3-1): Talavera; Rojas, Gamboa, da Silva, Ponce; Ríos, Wilson Tiago; Brizuela, Sinha, Benítez; Nava
Why San Jose will win: The Earthquakes have not exactly undergone a stylistic reboot in Mark Watson’s first preseason as head coach, but have instead changed personnel at a few key positions on the roster, namely in the center of midfield and on the flanks.
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So, don't expect to see them do too anything much different from what we've seen in past; if they win, it will be because of exemplary execution, and perhaps more importantly disciplined defense. It's a tricky proposition, as the Quakes fullbacks who love to get forward so often and help in the wide game will have to keep very close tabs on the likes of Brizuela.
No one on Toluca is quite in the class of Sinha when it comes to creativity, passing ability and technique and if he misses out it will be a boon for Watson's team, but Toluca boast a complete enough squad that they should still be considered favorites.
Why Toluca will win: San Jose have a very capable backline, but the Toluca front four (in whatever iteration it may take) is exceptionally talented — if they can get the San Jose defense to start straying positionally, the holes will start to open up. And once the Quakes start scrambling back there, it doesn't always look pretty.
Additionally, if Toluca's combative defensive midfield pairing of Wilson Tiago and Antonio Ríos is able to effectively hassle Pierazzi and Sam Cronin and limit the amount of time San Jose's wide players see on the ball, it will be a big step towards a successful series.