[MLS] The The San Jose Earthquakes get a chance to emulate the Red Bulls’ feat of 2008, when New York made the playoffs and crossed over to the Western Conference to march all the way to MLS Cup. This time around -- as the sixth-place finisher in the West -- San Jose (13-10-7) gets a shot at the Eastern Conference champion (15-9-6).
GOALKEEPING. Quakes’ starter Joe Cannon is back in training after missing the last two months with a broken ankle by which he lost the job to Jon Busch, who had temporarily taken the No. 1 jersey earlier in the season. Busch has played the last 12 games and posted six shutouts while compiling a 1.08 goals-allowed average. Bouna Coundoul has been steadier than in years past, and in 27 games saved 105 shots (second in the league), registered 11 shutouts and recorded a 1.04 goals-allowed average.
Edge: New York.
DEFENSE. This could have been a matchup of Rookie of the Year candidates in the respective back lines, but a broken foot sidelined the Quakes’ Ike Opara. Bobby Burling and Jason Hernandez have manned the middle much of the time, yet Brandon McDonald has logged a lot of minutes and the outside back slots could taken by any of four players, depending on the fitness of Ramiro Corrales and a few other factors. The Red Bulls’ rookie, Tim Ream, has soldiered on smartly enough to probably win the award. His central partner, Carlos Mendes, is extremely poised, veteran Mike Petke adds depth, and outside backs Roy Miller and Chris Albright are very capable at both ends of the field.
Edge: New York.
MIDFIELD. Bobby Convey’s drive and dribbling on the flanks has mobilized much of the Quakes’ attack (1 goal, 10 assists) this season, and he’s defended tenaciously whether in midfield or at left back. Chris Wondolowski can play wide or up front, so the Red Bull mids could have a lot of area to cover and problems to solve if he drops into their space. Arturo Alvarez adds a speedy, aggressive option. New York will need every bit of Joel Lindpere’s experience and Rafa Marquez’s savvy to maintain a foothold in midfield and supply Dane Richards with opportunities to barrel into the penalty area. Tony Tchani will miss the first game, at least, with a strained right hamstring.
FORWARDS. Two of the league’s best finishers will prowl the penalty areas in search of chances. The scoring drops off dramatically after Wondolowski’s 18 goals, yet Ryan Johnson is still a battling nuisance, Scott Sealy provides a scything element, and Geovanni is very difficult to track. With Thierry Henry sidelined for the first game, New York’s service to Juan Pablo Angel may be limited; he scored 13 regular-season goals but in some games has looked listless. Salou Ibrahim hit three goals in very limited duty, but is also injured and didn't travel for the first game. Ex-Rapid Mehdi Ballouchy can play as a second forward or as an advanced midfielder. Conor Chinn played his college soccer an hour up the freeway at the University of San Francisco.
Edge: San Jose.
COACHING. Frank Yallop won a pair of MLS Cups with San Jose in 2001 and 2003, and after this version of the team missed the playoffs the past two seasons he revamped it while overcoming a heavy load of injuries. In his first MLS job, Hans Backe and his staff have erased the horrors of a five-win season through shrewd moves that lifted New York out of the doldrums even before the midseason arrivals of Henry and Marquez.
Edge: San Jose.
REGULAR SEASON. San Jose drilled the Red Bulls, 4-0, at home after Luke Sassano left the game to a red card in the 13th minute; New York won the return game, 2-0, Aug. 28. New York is the only Eastern team with a winning record (7-5-4) against the West.
FORM. Since their loss in New York, the Quakes are 5-2-3; included are road wins at Houston, Toronto and D.C. United, and a tie in Columbus, but they’ve also lost to Chicago and Houston at home without scoring. By beating New England, 2-0, in its season finale New York wrapped up a 6-2-2 mark in its last 10 games.
PREDICTION: New York, 2-1.