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MLS Preview: Colorado Rapids at San Jose Earthquakes

Oct 8, 2013, 9:31 PM EDT

Deshorn Brown, Dillon Powers AP
  • Teams are fifth, sixth in the Western Conference.
  • San Jose has lost one home game all season.
  • Earthquakes without Chavez; Rapids without Brown, Torres.

‘Six-pointer’ is one of the worst expressions in soccer. All matches are six-pointers! They each carry a potential six-point swing in the standings.- the difference between Team A winning and Team B claiming full points. Whether you’re talking about a game in round one or the last match of the season, they’re all six-pointers.

But typically that monicker’s been reserved for games between teams competing for (or, trying to avoid) the same threshold. That’s why a match between teams trying to avoid the drop is a relegation six-pointer (almost exclusively how the term’s used).

Wednesday’s Major League Soccer schedule presents us with a six-pointer of a different kind. A late season surge sees the San Jose Earthquakes, last year’s Supporters’ Shield winners, in sixth place in the West – just outside a playoff position. Right on the other side of that line? The upstart Colorado Rapids, whose young core has been slowly augmented by veterans to give Oscar Pareja’s team an unexpected staying power.

Coming off a 5-1 win over Seattle, the Rapids may have shed that upstart label. After thrashing a recognized MLS Cup-contender, it no longer seems right to add any mitigating adjectives. Young Rapids, that’s fine? Athletic, dynamic, talented? Sure. Upstart has come to carry a slightly negative connotation, when we use it in sports. It’s almost as if we don’t believe it’s real.

Last year’s San Jose and this year’s Montréal weren’t/aren’t classified as upstarts (particularly because of the veteran makeup of their rosters). Instead, we discuss their potential impact on the postseason. Particularly after this weekend’s showing, don’t we owe Colorado the same respect?

First things first, Colorado need to get into the playoffs, which brings us back to the six-pointer concept. If Colorado loses at Buck Shaw (which nine out of 15 visitors have), they bring San Jose within one. But if they win? The pull seven points clear and could clinch, provided Vancouver drops points in Seattle.

If that happens, not only will Colorado become only the second team to claim full points from Santa Clara this season, they will send San Jose to the brink of elimination. One more Galaxy win, and the Earthquakes would be out.

It highlights the tightrope Matt Watson’s team is walking, though the fact that they haven’t already fallen to earth is a testament to both the new boss and his resilient squad. When Frank Yallop left the team early this season, it forced the players to internalize their poor start.

Though they’re unlikely to make the playoffs, the fact that San Jose is still in contention in October speaks to the professionalism of the group. Instead of playing for next year, the team decided to earn the paychecks they’re getting now.

And let’s not completely dismiss the possibility of them getting into the playoffs. If they win out, they get to 53 points, and they’re likely in. If they go 2-0-1, they hit 51 points and can get in if Vancouver takes some points from Colorado in those teams’ season-ending home-and-home. Watson’s already achieved something by keeping San Jose alive, but their chances to achieve greater things shouldn’t be so readily dismissed.

But if there’s a narrative to grab onto here, it’s Colorado’s. The team made an early commitment to their young core without any expectation of making this year’s playoffs. Set to allow the likes of Shane O’Neill, Deshorn Brown, and Dillon Powers room to grow beneath what looked like a jammed Western Conference playoff race, the Rapids were happy to rebuild, jettisoning Conor Casey and Jeff Larentowicz to do so. But with Clint Irwin’s emergence in goal and the ascension of Chris Klute to becoming the season’s best left back, the Rapids became as much about the present as the future.

That rise brings expectations. Coming off a 5-1 win over Seattle, a trip to San Jose suddenly looks winnable. With Marvin Chavez off with Honduras, Klute will have more cause to get forward down Colorado’s left. In the absence of Gaby Torres and Deshorn Brown, a Colorado attack featuring Edson Buddle, Vicente Sanchez, and Powers should find holes in a defense that’s missing Victor Bernardez and relying on a hobbled Clarence Goodson. Chris Wondolowski and Alan Gordon are available for San Jose, but Steven Lenhart is not, giving O’Neil and Drew Moor one less nuisance to worry about. If Colorado is a playoff-caliber team, they should find a way to get something from this match.

As much as the actual standings, that’s what Wednesday’s six-pointer is about: Identifying which of these two teams is truly playoff-worthy. Getting results under tough circumstances, taking advantage of the opportunities you’re presented, ending your opponents’ dreams – these are all tasks you endure in the postseason. San Jose and Colorado get a taste of it Wednesday night.

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