Emerging from the weekend with a home draw against a resolute Philadelphia Union side in of itself is not too shabby a result for the San Jose Earthquakes. However, when put into context with their current run of form that has them scoring just twice and without a win in their last five MLS regular season matches, the Quakes desperately need to remedy the situation before the fall further out of the postseason picture. So in a match that looks to be just what the doctor ordered, San Jose welcomes English Premier League side West Bromwich Albion to Buck Shaw Stadium for a summer friendly.
Normally friendlies are not the most riveting affairs, as MLS sides tend to treat the matches more like scrimmages and the opponents are often just getting their preseason preparations into full gear. Tonight’s game against the Baggies probably most likely will fit that mold, but it will also serve another purpose for a team that is struggling to create any meaningful offense in league play. Head coach Frank Yallop has already promised a wide mix of his players will see the field, and so the chance to impress the gaffer will be there for some of the more fringe players on the squad.
Why the match matters — and also why it promises to be very entertaining to fans that make it out to the stadium (no television coverage tonight, though you can listen to a gamecast on the Earthquakes website) — is that the Quakes that do see the field are in effect playing for their spot in the regular MLS match day 18. Sure, Jon Busch, Chris Wondolowski, Jason Hernandez, Brad Ring, and a couple others are automatic selections for Yallop, others like Matt Luzunaris, Justin Morrow, Anthony Ampaipitakwong, and Tim Ward are not. Luzunaris in particular has put together a nice spring with Quakes, but his efforts have only bee visible to the public in the little-watched MLS Reserve League. Newcomer Rafael Baca also looks to be on the verge of breaking through into the first team rotation, so getting a meaningful performance in against West Brom will only help his case that he is ready for the rigors of MLS play.
One of the more popular Twitter memes that rears its head every summer is the ever-popular #trophiesnotfriendlies hash-tag that was purportedly started by the fine folks over at Sounder at Heart. While scheduling too many of these exhibition matches every summer could be seen as a distraction from the MLS regular season, when prepared for properly they can be an integral part of the schedule. For the fans that clamber to the stadiums to watch many of these games, the experience of seeing a new opponent up close is a wonderful experience. Sometimes that unfamiliarity between opponents can lead to some attractive soccer as both teams just go about having a good game and worry less about the result. Counter that with the MLS regular season, where the familiarity among teams has led to the most cautiously played season in MLS history — anyone else fancy another scoreless draw?
Lastly, the opponent for the Earthquakes tonight hails from the EPL — not some lesser league where all but a few fans would be hard pressed to name more than a team or two in the competition. West Brom did well in their first season back in the English top flight in 2010-11 and hopes to retain their place in the EPL in the upcoming campaign. Perhaps they knock off one of the Big Four along the way. Those that get out to the game tonight will then be able to say they say the giant-killing Baggies in the flesh, and they never doubted their abilities. Conversely, maybe your favorite club is, say, Coventry City, and you just want the chance to taunt West Brom from up close. For whatever reason you have, the match tonight is a great opportunity to watch some live soccer from players that are very much looking forward to the chance to impress their coaches. A win doesn’t get the Earthquakes any closer to a playoff spot in the MLS table, put the confidence boost a great performance could give to both the team and fans is reason enough to pay close attention.