When the Houston Dynamo and the San Jose Earthquakes meet this week on "MLS Primetime Thursday," the atmosphere will be similar to a family reunion. Before its move to Houston for the 2006 season, the Dynamo franchise called San Jose home, and of the 11 former Quakes still on their roster, eight of them played for San Jose head coach Frank Yallop. Add in the fact that Dynamo manager Dominic Kinnear served his coaching apprenticeship under the Canadian, and the only thing missing will be the picnic tables and Frisbees.
Now that the regular season has begun, expect those emotions to run even higher, especially with San Jose in desperate need of a victory.
Five story lines to follow
1. Old Quakes vs. New Quakes
Not only could Houston field a lineup comprised entirely of ex-Quakes, but if you throw in the three San Jose players who were around for the previous incarnation, you probably could put together a pretty fair all-time San Jose XI. Yet Kinnear, who grew up in nearby Fremont, Calif., knows that such familiarity will mean little once the whistle blows.
"You have to try to put that [history] aside and just concentrate on playing," said Kinnear. "This is another hugely important game for us."
2. San Jose's expansion blues
When the Quakes rolled to a 5-1-2 preseason record against professional opponents, hopes were raised that they might contend for a playoff spot in their first year. But regular-season reality has bitten San Jose hard. At 1-5-1, the team has the worst record in MLS, and with injuries beginning to pile up, there doesn't appear to be any end in sight. Their somnambulant 2-0 defeat last week at New England certainly didn't provide many reasons for optimism.
|MLS Primetime Thursday|
Houston at San Jose
10:30 p.m. ET (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, ESPN360)
"It hasn't been easy, but there are no excuses," said Yallop. "I still think we've been better than the points we've gotten, but we've also had games where we were really poor."
3. The champs rebound
Two weeks ago, Houston was keeping San Jose company at the foot of the Western Conference table. But two consecutive victories, including an impressive road win at Chicago, appear to have cured what was ailing the Dynamo. And with the rest of the West mired in mediocrity, Houston is now back near the top of the standings.
"I think our overall game has been a little bit more clinical, and the results are now starting to go our way," said Kinnear. "Before, we were playing about the same, but we weren't getting the results we wanted."
4. Quakes shooting blanks
At the beginning of the season, the conventional wisdom had it that San Jose's forward line was their weakest link. For once, the pundits have been proven correct. The Quakes have scored a paltry four goals in seven matches, with just two of them coming from open play. Making matters worse, Gavin Glinton is out with a sports hernia, while newly acquired forward Peguero Jean Philippe has been sidelined with swelling in his surgically repaired right knee. Yallop acquired more front line help this week by obtaining Jovan Kirovski from Colorado, but that likely won't be the last deal Yallop makes.
"We're working the phones and trying to get some players in," said Yallop. "But I've been in this league long enough to know that teams don't give players away."
5. Dynamo shooting better
For all of San Jose's woes in front of goal, Houston hasn't been prolific either. Its nine goals are tied for 12th in the league, with one-time Golden Boot winner Brian Ching stuck on one goal for the season. But the Dynamo have scored four times in their past two games, a trend Kinnear chalks up to the return of midfielders Brian Mullan and Stuart Holden.
"The same four in midfield have played a couple of games together now, so we're attacking better from different areas," said Kinnear.
Five players to watch
1. Ronnie O'Brien, M, San Jose
What's most puzzling about the Quakes' offensive struggles is that their approach work has been decent at times, and during those moments, it's been O'Brien who has been at the heart of things. While the Irishman doesn't run at people as much as he used to, he can still deliver some sharp passes, and the Quakes will need him to be at his pinpoint best if they are to make a game of it.
2. Dwayne De Rosario, M, Houston
Now in his fourth season as an attacking midfielder, De Rosario remains the player most teams try to stop, with two defenders often being thrown at the Canadian the moment he collects the ball. As a result, De Rosario has struggled to put up the numbers that made him an MVP candidate back in 2006. But Kinnear feels that by simplifying his game, De Rosario can get back to his swashbuckling ways.
"Teams obviously know [De Rosario's] style and how he likes to play," said Kinnear. "But the more he plays one- and two-touch, it opens up space for him because the defensive pressure has to go somewhere else."
3. Nick Garcia, D, San Jose
Garcia may not be the speediest defender in the league, and at 5-foot-10, he's not the tallest, either. But if last week's loss to New England proved anything, it's how much the Quakes rely on his toughness and leadership. Garcia sat out the match with a groin strain, and his presence clearly was missed. His expected return on Thursday should add some grit to San Jose's game.
"[Garcia] makes sure that people around him are alert," said Yallop. "I think that we were sloppy and dopey the first 20 minutes of the New England game, and it cost us."
|Sign up now for the free MLS fantasy game
4. Bobby Boswell, D, Houston
After struggling last season and enduring an offseason trade from D.C. United, Boswell had everything to prove in 2008. His early performances weren't convincing, but Boswell has gradually found his game and appears to be forming a solid partnership alongside Eddie Robinson. He's also proved to be a danger on set pieces, netting the game winner against Chicago.
5. Kei Kamara, F, San Jose
Kamara has had his moments this season in which his strength and speed have caused problems for opposition defenses. But aside from one solitary goal against Colorado on April 19, Kamara's finishing touch has eluded him, and with the Quakes' frontline dinged up, Yallop has no choice but to show continued faith in the Sierra Leone native.
"It's about consistency and doing the simple things right, and Kamara has got to get in dangerous areas," said Yallop. "But he's a young player who is still learning the game."
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.