1) The Quakes are coming off a 120-minute match in Mexico from Wednesday, how will the Quakes adjust tactics and personnel for this match?
The Quakes fielded a novel lineup in Mexico - injuries, to the backline especially, decimated the squad and gave rookie JJ Koval a chance to shine at altitude. The biggest shock of all was the switch from their time-tested 4-4-2 formation. The only certain return will be Victor Bernardez, who will return from his CCL suspension, and Clarence Goodson is optimistically listed as probable, so look for much of the same on the backline. Steven Lenhart and rookie Billy Schuler are again the proposed starters, with Wondo available off the bench apparently still nursing a groin strain that surfaced in the preseason.
If the Quakes' center backs are ready and both teams' central defenders live up to expectations, it might be a low scoring game. In which case, I foresee the lineup below, with offensive substitutions as the key to breaking the deadlock. It remains to be seen who gets the starting nod between Gordon and Lenhart, but either is capable of creating the Goonie magic.
Francis, Goodson (Harden), Bernardez, Cato,
Salinas, Cronin, Pierazzi, Harris,
Schuler (Wondolowski), Gordon (Lenhart)
Rookie Billy Schuler was impressive in the preseason and has done enough to keep a starting spot in Wondo's possible absence. The recovery time of the youngsters shouldn't be an issue, but coach Mark Watson's choice of veterans will be determined on who looks chipper on match day. Failing that, Watson might be casting his eye over any of the traveling Quakes' fans who turns up in the new, red road kit.
2) The Quakes have a history of winning or tying the match late, such as the opener against Real Salt Lake. What do the Quakes need to do to make sure they are in a good position early against SKC where they don't have to win late?
RSL goalie Nick Rimando answered that question perfectly when he joked "I think [the Earthquakes] should play like that the whole 90 minutes". I'm not certain that the San Jose Earthquakes mind having to win late - as long as they win (or at least don't lose). The latest of late goals in the Quakes two matches this season have heralded the return with a vengeance of the Goonies. This might be considered inevitable with the new second strip now sporting the motto Never Say Die on the neckline. In both games Alan Gordon, who is recovering from offseason foot surgery, has come on for the last half hour of all three games - I might argue that his presence gives tiring defenses too much to deal with.
3) After missing the playoffs last year what does San Jose need to do differently this year to lock up a spot?
It was a close call last season, missing the playoffs on goal difference (sighs). Most fans shake their heads and start to examine their shoelaces at the memory of ‘Shoegate' when Bernardez and Gordon found themselves on the touchline changing cleats in the middle of the game; three points at home diminished to one as the Quakes were down to nine men. After coach Frank Yallop's departure, interim coach Mark Watson guided the same squad to a great second half - he quickly won over the fans with his professionalism.
The squad has seen considerable turnover in the off-season, with losses of Morrow, Beitashour, Baca, and Corrales et al. The rookies Koval and Schuler have stepped up with aplomb, and there are many veteran bench players recovering and returning from injuries: Harden, Gorlitz and Barklage et al. Given that the Earthquakes 2013 season started so slowly, also as a result of an injured roster, it will be interesting to see how coach Watson manages his team's injury challenges throughout an entire season. It's early days in the 2014 season, but there's optimism among the fans that the balance of effective rookies and experienced veterans on the bench augurs well.