Earthquakes shaking up MLS playoffs

Vancouver connections aplenty with San Jose

The Major League Soccer (MLS) semifinals are this weekend, with San Jose Earthquakes playing away to Colorado Rapids on Saturday while FC Dallas visit Los Angeles Galaxy on Sunday. The winner of those games will then meet in MLS Cup 2010 on Sunday, November 21 at Toronto's BMO Field.

San Jose and Colorado are the two Cinderella stories of the post-season, after claiming the final two playoff spots. Neither one was expected to get this far, which partly explains why Saturday's contest is officially billed as the Eastern Conference Championship, even though neither team plays in the Eastern Conference. In fact none of the four semifinalists are from the Eastern Conference, proving that the West truly is the best in MLS.

The Earthquakes have a number of connections with Vancouver. First and foremost is head coach Frank Yallop who grew up here. He then went on to a lengthy career in England with Ipswich Town, as well as playing for and later coaching Canada's national team.

Yallop's assistant coach is another veteran Canadian international from Vancouver, Mark Watson. A veteran of both MLS and various European leagues, Watson also played with his hometown Whitecaps FC in 2005, and had two seasons here earlier in his career in 1993 and 1995 in between spells in England.

A third connection is San Jose midfielder Joey Gjertsen, who unfortunately is not available for the playoffs after undergoing knee surgery last month. The native of Tacoma, WA, started his career with Whitecaps FC in 2005, earning the team's Rookie of the Year award. In 2006, he lead the 'Caps in scoring and was named USL First Division Most Valuable Player. The next season he broke the club record for consecutive games played before being traded to Montreal Impact. Incidentally, Gjertsen's ironman record was surpassed this past season by Whitecaps FC goalkeeper Jay Nolly.

The Earthquakes are led by MLS scoring leader Chris Wondolowski in attack, as the California native has enjoyed a breakthrough season playing predominantly on the right.  American international midfielder Bobby Convey, formerly with English side Reading FC, is the key playmaker. San Jose tend to play an unorthodox system, where the attackers try to create space in which Wondolowski can operate, often sneaking in at the back post to finish. It's worked well, but if Colorado can keep  Wondolowski in check, then the Eathquakes attacking options may become limited. Their top sniper has scored 18 goals this season, while no other player on the squad has more than 3.

If San Jose can get past the Rapids, then it would certainly be a nice Canadian homecoming for Yallop and Watson in Toronto gunning for the MLS Cup.