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Chris Wondolowski in form, ready to lead shorthanded Quakes against D.C. United

The Earthquakes will be without Espinoza and Thompson, and possibly Eriksson, when they face DC United.

Two weeks ago, Chris Wondolowski was feted as the Major League Soccer goal scoring king following an unprecedented four-goal performance against the Chicago Fire. The San Jose Earthquakes captain was lauded for his excellence in front of net that day, and for every day of his 15-year MLS career, with appreciation posts far and wide.

So what did Wondolowski do for an encore for last Sunday? Simply score another pair of goals, this time against Toronto FC, to give the Quakes a come from behind 2-1 win and their first road victory of the season. Oh yeah, he also added another jewel to his goal scoring crown, netting his 42nd career game-winning goal, putting him ahead of Landon Donovan on the league’s all-time list.

At the rate Wondolowski is surpassing the legend’s lofty records, MLS might want to consider renaming its “Landon Donovan MVP Award” for the Quakes striker instead.

Wondolowski and the Earthquakes, one of the hottest teams in the league over the last two months, next roll into the nation’s capital for a a much anticipated showdown with Wayne Rooney and first place DC United at Audi Field. It will be the Quakes first visit to the MLS Original’s new soccer-specific facility, and they’ll be looking to make it a memorable one.

The Wondo train rolls on

Both of Wondolowski’s goals against Toronto came in classic fashion: crossing pass into the box, Wondo stepping into a gap in the defense, a lethal one-touch shot to redirect the ball into the back of the net. It’s been a recipe for so many of his 150 career MLS goals, one that lacks any flourish, but is so efficient in its execution.

“It’s been fun,” Wondolowski said from BMO Field after Sunday’s win. “Goal scoring comes in bunches, whether good or bad, and right now they’re coming so I’m trying to take advantage of it.”

The Quakes captain started his second straight game following six games coming off the substitutes’ bench, and his six total goals in those two victories vaulted him into the ninth spot on the MLS leaderboard. Remarkably, after suffering through a goal scoring drought that lasted the first 11 games of the campaign, Wondolowski is back on pace to reach double-digit goals in 2019 which would extend his MLS record to ten straight.

Such a mark would be the perfect measure of the 36-year-old’s sustained success throughout his MLS career, and it’s one he surely covets. His record-setting 42nd game-winning goal is special too, and it reflects another achievement that the team-first Wondolowski appreciates.

“It’s a true honor,” Wondolowski said. “I’m very fortunate again just to have that record. I think it’s very important. If you have game winning goals, then that’s a big thing. I’m very fortunate thanks to our team’s good defense.”

Espinoza a revelation

At BMO Field, it was Wondolowski bagging the goals, but they might not have happened without the stellar wing play of Cristian Espinoza. The Argentine midfielder provided the assists on both goals, bringing his season tally to six, and he’s delivered five of those in his last five appearances. For a goal-scorer like Wondo, having an Espinoza at his side, reliably carving up the defense, is vital.

“To be honest it was a great play by Cristian Espinoza, the way he was able to fly down that flank tonight,” Wondolowski said. “He sent in a few good balls and I was just happy to find myself on the end of a couple of them.”

The 2-1 win in Toronto was the Earthquakes first on the road since defeating FC Dallas last August, and it was their first comeback win away from San Jose since March 14, 2015, when they beat the Seattle Sounders 3-2 in the Emerald City. Coincidentally, Wondolowski scored twice in that match as well.

“We controlled the match for almost the full 90 minutes,” Espinoza said. “We knew that they’re a great team with great players. We knew how to get back from going down a goal and winning the match which is pretty tough to do especially on the road.”

Unfortunately for the Earthquakes, Espinoza picked up his fifth yellow card of the season on Sunday, and he will be suspended for the game against DC United. The Quakes had caught TFC shorthanded last weekend, as the Reds were without Designated Players Michael Bradley and Alejandro Pozuelo, and now they’ll be the team adjusting to forced changes to their starting lineup in D.C. At least they’ll still have Wondolowski leading the way.

“I’m happy for him as he continues scoring goals which is important for his career and obviously very important for us,” Espinoza said, “especially since it encourages us to keep fighting.”

Seismic shifts to the Starting XI

Espinoza won’t be the only absence for the high-flying Quakes, as Tommy Thompson also will be suspended for yellow card accumulation. San Jose could also be without Magnus Eriksson, who is listed as “questionable” on this week’s injury report. All three players have been instrumental in the Earthquakes current 5-2-2 stretch, the team’s best mark over nine games since the summer of 2015.

So where does that leave head coach Matias Almeyda? The rookie MLS coach will at the least hope that Eriksson will be cleared to play on Saturday, but if the Swedish midfielder, the team’s midfield shuttler in attack, he’ll have to go to his bench. Wondolowski, coming off a second straight MLS Team of the Week performance, has no doubts his replacement will be ready.

“I think there is a lot of confidence in this locker room,” Wondolowski said. “I think we are starting to play a lot better and understand the system that coach Matias Almeyda has instilled in us.”

The system is what should mitigate the disruption of making three significant changes to the lineup, as Almeyda wants his players attacking and defending in a structured manner. The individual flare of Espinoza and Thompson will be especially missed, but the Earthquakes as a whole don’t expect any wholesale changes to their approach.

Nick Lima, the team’s starting left back this season, but a two-year veteran on the right side, could return to the other sideline against DC United, paving the way for the return of young Peruvian Marcos Lopez. Alternatively, Lima may stay put on the left and second-year defender Paul Marie could get his second start of the season at right back.

Almeyda certainly has options in the midfield, and the two primary attacking substitutions in Toronto, Danny Hoesen and Valeri “Vako” Qazaishvili, would be the logical replacements for Espinoza and Eriksson. Rookie midfielder Siad Haji, who turned in an eye-opening performance in his MLS debut as a sub in the 3-1 loss at New England, could also be in line to earn his first professional start. Judson, the Brazilian center midfielder who started the season for San Jose, is a final option to start, perhaps allowing Anibal Godoy to push forward into a more attacking role.

Whatever the choices Almeyda makes, forced or otherwise, he has the team performing better than it has all season. And while DC United, coming off a frustrating 3-3 draw with the Chicago Fire midweek, will be hungry to return to winning ways at Audi Field, the Earthquakes, with Wondolowski leading the way, are poised to make it two in a row on the road.

Match Information:

When: June 1, 5:00 p.m. Pacific Time
Where: Audi Field, District of Columbia.
Broadcast: NBC Sports California, KNBR 1050
Live Stream: ESPN+
Earthquakes injury/suspended report: Out: Cristian Espinoza (yellow card accumulation), Tommy Thompson (yellow card accumulation); Questionable: Magnus Eriksson (concussion).

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