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San Jose Earthquakes hope hard work pays off against Chicago Fire

May 25, 2018; Carson, CA, USA; San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Valeri Qazaishvili (11) moves the ball down the field against the Los Angeles Galaxy during the first half at StubHub Center. (Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY Sports)

SAN JOSE, Calif. — As the San Jose Earthquakes stood outside Avaya Stadium, awaiting the bus that would take them next door to Mineta San Jose International Airport for a flight to Chicago, they could do nothing more than look beyond their slow start to the season. After all, it has to get better for a team that has won only once in its past 11 games, right?

The Quakes will face the Fire this weekend, an Eastern Conference foe struggling almost as mightily as San Jose in 2018 and looking to snap a two-game losing streak. Chicago is coming off a difficult away loss againt the Philadelphia Union and is likely to be suffering from fatigue. It might be the ideal time for the Earthquakes to pick up a road win.

“I must say, we are close,” head coach Mikael Stahre said at training this week. “We have to step up even more, and we have to provoke more. We are so close to tie or win, away actually. We need to continue with that and get some victories away.”

The Quakes’ lone win since beating Minnesota United at Avaya Stadium opening night was against those same Loons earlier this month on the road at TCF Bank Stadium. San Jose is 0-4-1 against opponents from the East.

But Chicago has an identical record in its interconference games, with three losses coming at Toyota Park. Saturday night’s game against the Quakes sets up less as a glamour matchup and more as a war of attrition. Neither side is showing a form that would indicate it can dominate the other.

A dozen games into the campaign, the Earthquakes are still looking to fit the pieces together. Earlier in the season, the offense created opportunities and scored goals, but the defense suffered from inconsistency and too many individual mistakes. As Stahre made adjustments to tactics and formation, the pendulum swung to the opposite side, and now the team is struggling in the build-up in the attacking third.

“Yes, we need to find the balance,” Valeri “Vako” Qazaishvili said. “If we continue to work hard, the wins will come.”

Vako started the season off with a bang, collecting two goals and adding two assists in the first two games, but the Georgian midfielder has cooled off considerably since then. He has only one assist in his last nine games, well below the standards he has set for himself, and the Quakes need their highest paid player to be more productive in front of goal.

Stahre put his squad through a challenging week of training following last Friday’s 1-0 loss to the LA Galaxy. He will have to deal with the loss of Anibal Godoy and Harold Cummings, two starters named to Panama’s World Cup roster and will miss at least the next five league games. In some good news, the coach welcomed back Jahmir Hyka and Yeferson Quintana from injury this week and both are available for selection against the Fire.

Meanwhile, the players’ morale has been steady, despite the lack of wins and the team’s continual drop toward the bottom of the Western Conference standings. It will take a Herculean effort over the remaining schedule to get back above the playoff cut line and qualify for the postseason, but it’s one the team is ready to take on.

“The coach’s message is to keep working hard,” Vako said. “If you work hard, we will get some points and go to the playoffs.”

The next month is crucial to the Quakes’ push to get back into playoffs chase. With five league games on the docket, as well as the start of the U.S. Open Cup tournament for MLS teams, San Jose cannot afford to give away points. It’s unrealistic to believe the Quakes can snap off a long winning streak, especially with the strength of opponents they will face in June. But the chance is there for the team to show that it belongs in the top half of the West.

“Now it is Chicago, and now we have to prepare for that game,” Stahre said. “And then we have Portland in the Cup, and then LAFC at home. Yeah, it is a busy schedule, but I think still — you can see it in the training session — that the energy is here and the commitment are here, so that is a good signal.”

Match Information:

When: June 2, 5:30 p.m. Pacific Time

Where: Toyota Park, Bridgeview, Ill.

Broadcast: NBC Sports California, KNBR 1050

Live Stream: ESPN+

Earthquakes injury report: None

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