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It’s first versus worst as unbeaten LAFC visits San Jose Earthquakes

San Jose Earthquakes forward Cristian Espinoza is looking forward to playing LAFC at Avaya Stadium. Darren Yamashita/USA TODAY Sports)

SAN JOSE, Calif. — A week off should have been a time for the winless Earthquakes to regroup and look beyond a difficult 0-3 start to the season. But for Matias Almeyda, who has been working to completely overhaul the style of play in San Jose, the FIFA international break did not go as planned.

Seven players, all who have been part of Almeyda’s rotation in losses to Montreal, Minnesota, and New York, spent the better part of the MLS bye week away with their national teams, stalling the progress the squad needs to make in adopting their coach’s preferred man-marking tactical plan. Danny Hoesen, who acquired his U.S. Green Card last week, also missed a significant number of training days.

“It’s little time to prepare for a match considering their flights and the matches they just played,” Almeyda shared during his midweek press conference. “We’ll see what conditions they arrive in as well as properly analyze the team.”

The Earthquakes play host to Los Angeles Football Club on Saturday in a game that will be broadcast on Univision and streamed on Twitter. The national audience will be treated to the two teams that sit at opposite ends of the MLS table, with LAFC on 10 points from four games and the Quakes still looking for their first positive result of 2019. San Jose beat the SoCal side in the preseason, but is winless in two tries in regular season play.

Chris Wondolowski, who remains stuck on 144 career goals and has seen his chase of Landon Donovan’s record slow to a crawl, scored twice last season against the then expansion side. His heroic effort at Avaya Stadium last June, when the captain had to leave the game early due to sickness, was not enough to hold off the visitors, as LAFC overturned a 3-2 deficit in the 90th minute to win 4-3.

LAFC, the comeback kids in California, have already come back to win twice in second half stoppage time this season, showing a resilience that San Jose can only dream of. The Quakes, in contrast, have scored two goals total in three games, both within the first 15 minutes. The two franchises share a state, but they don’t yet share a rivalry.

“It’s going to be a huge test for us,” Wondolowski said earlier this week. “They’ve done an amazing job, especially as an expansion team last year. But I think they’ve gotten even better this year and improved their team. It definitely ignites this rivalry, but, for us, we have to win for it to start being a rivalry.”

If San Jose is able to take anything away from their preseason win down in LA, it is that their relentless style of play can be effective when it puts opponents on the back foot. LAFC tends to favor the ball, getting their dangerous attackers, lead by Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi, into spaces within the defensive line. Keep the ball themselves, and the Quakes will stay in contention.

“In reality, we have to play our game and be superior in every way,” Almeyda said. “We have to have control of the game and watch out for players that pose a big threat like Vela and their attackers.”

The missing national teamers are all back in San Jose, and Almeyda finally had his full team to work with on Thursday — only two days prior to their game against LAFC. He has already established a culture of hard work and fitness among the players, something that has resulted in some impressive stretches of play in the Earthquakes first three games of the season. Putting it all together from opening to final whistle has yet to be realized.

“I really love Matias’s game plans,” Wondolowski said. “We are all starting to understand them. We’ve seen little glimpses here and there of how special it can be, but we have to put it together for a full 90 minutes and stay both mentally and physically in tune with it. We can’t turn off for a second; otherwise, we will get punished.”

The long absences during the bye week of some of the starters from the first three games may prompt Almeyda to further rotate his squad. However, as of Friday, every player that has earned minutes this season was back in San Jose and available for selection against LAFC.

For midfielder Cristian Espinoza, who scored for San Jose in its last game and benefited a full two weeks of training, as well as a friendly game against Monterrey last weekend, the chance to play on Saturday for some California bragging rights is welcome.

“It’s going to be a match like all the clasicos,” Espinoza said this week. “Like all matches, we are looking to win. Obviously, it’s a special game knowing the rivalry between the teams. It’s always nice to take part in these types of matches.”

Match Information:

When: March 30, 12:30 p.m. Pacific Time
Where: Avaya Stadium, San Jose, CA.
Broadcast: Univision, KNBR 1050
Live Stream: Twitter
Earthquakes injury report: Out: Kevin Partida (knee surgery).

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