Chivas USA starts on Sunday a five-game span against most of the best teams Major League Soccer has to offer, taking on the San Jose Earthquakes in Santa Clara.
The matchup offers an intriguing contrast between two of the best strikers in the league over the past few years -- one of them on a scoring pace that has carried his club to the top of the standings and the other looking for the kind of form, and confidence, that had made him MLS's most deadly finisher.
San Jose's Chris Wondolowski, who has scored 11 goals already this season and has 45 of San Jose's 95 since the start of the 2010 season, is the forward on fire.
Chivas' Juan Pablo Angel, who netted 71 goals over the past five years, is looking to get himself on a run like Wondolowski's -- but first he has to get past his concussion issues.
It makes for a more interesting matchup than it might seem: The Quakes (7-2-1) are battling for the lead in the Supporters' Shield standings, and Chivas (3-6-0) is becoming increasingly desperate for goals and for points.
Angel figures to be the primary target for the Goats, although he's still dealing with the impact of a concussion that sidelined him for five games. He was cleared not quite a month ago and has played in the past three games, scoring on a penalty kick in last weekend's 2-1 loss to Chicago.
He hit heads with the Fire's Sebastian Grazzini in that one and went down in training when hit in the head by a teammate on Tuesday. Angel is ready to go in San Jose, but he's watching things carefully.
“I'm doing OK,” the tall Colombian said. “It's looking like my head is a magnet, and [it is attracting contact] whether it's an elbow, whether it's a head, whether it's a ball. ... I had another incident Tuesday. We'll see. It's progressing well so far. I'm trying to go and do normal exactly like always.”
It's been tough for Angel, who netted 61 MLS goals in four seasons with New York, struggled to fit in last season with the Galaxy, then scored seven times in nine games after joining Chivas last August. He hit heads with Portland defender Eric Brunner during a preseason game, then played in two more games before pulling out with concussion-related symptoms.
He's still searching for his best form after the time off, and Chivas -- with only five goals in nine games -- needs him to locate it soon. The latest collisions aren't helping.
“It's amazing how that happens,” Chivas coach Robin Fraser said. “It's just crazy some of the things that have happened, where he's taken a knock in the head from a ball or whatever over the last couple of weeks. I'm sure he'll be fine, but it's got to be frustrating for him.”
Said Angel: “It's hard sometimes to judge [what to do] ... and it's about trying to be smart ... deciding between the passion and the things you're willing to do and what is actually right for you. Hopefully, everything will be OK.”
MR. WONDOFUL: Wondolowski won the MLS Golden Boot with 18 goals in 2010, shared the goals title last year with 16 and has 11 in 10 games this year, best in the league.
He has scored in 15 of the last 19 Quakes games, has 17 of the last 30 Quakes goals, and leads MLS in goals (45), game-winning goals (18) and road goals (22) since the 2010 season kicked off.
He's got a goal or an assist in eight straight matches, just three shy of Roy Lassiter's 14-year-old league record, and needs 13 more goals to tie Ronald Cerritos' club career record. Not bad for a guy who scored just seven goals in his first six seasons.
How do you stop him?
“Interesting player, huh? Damn good,” Chivas goalkeeper Dan Kennedy said. “I think he gets himself in a lot of good positions, so what it is that he's doing off the ball, it's really important that we're tuned into that.”
“What a goal scorer,” he said. “I mean, really, what a goal scorer. I think there are probably a lot of us over the years that had some doubts, and thought, 'Oh, he's had a good run here, he's had a good run there,' but he is very, very, very intelligent in how he moves in the box, and he's a very good finisher.
“The key is you have to be aware of where he is at all times. He's one of the best in drifting in and out of [defenders'] blind spots that I've seen in a long time. It's got to be part of what you do: You show up that day, you get to the field, and you have to know where he is.”
WORTH NOTING: Chivas is 3-1-0 in road games but have lost two in a row, at Colorado and against Chicago. ... Ben Zemanski, who turns 24 Saturday, will miss his fourth straight game with an MCL sprain. He was downgraded to questionable this week and said he hoped to be available for next weekend's SuperClasico against the Galaxy. ... Alejandro Moreno scored eight goals for San Jose in its Supporters' Shield-winning 2005 campaign, and he was teammates with Alan Gordon on the Galaxy (2004), Wondolowski with Houston (2006-07) and Steven Lenhart with Columbus (2009-09). ... Lenhart and Wondolowski have won the last two MLS Player of the Week awards. ... Chivas is 6-3-4 all-time against San Jose, including a Sacramento friendly in 2010, a 0-0 draw. Since the Quakes' return in 2008, the Goats are 6-1-1 in MLS encounters. ... A Spanish website reports that Chivas owner Jorge Vergara has offered a two-year, $4million contract to Schalke 04 striker Raul, the 34-year-old Spanish star who scored 323 goals in 16 seasons with Real Madrid. He is expected to sign a $12 million deal in Qatar.
SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES
Head coach: Frank Yallop.
Key players: F Chris Wondolowski, M Marvin Chavez, M Simon Dawkins, M Tressor Moreno, F Steven Lenhart, M Sam Cronin, D Ramiro Corrales.
Local guys: Lenhart (Yorba Linda/Azusa Pacific), M Rafael Baca (Lawndale/Loyola Marymount), F Cesar Diaz Pizarro (Chino Hills/UC Riverside), F/M Sam Garza (UC Santa Barbara), plus former Galaxy/Chivas USA forward Alan Gordon and former Chivas defender Jason Hernandez.
Update: The Quakes (7-2-1) have been MLS's biggest mover in early season, surging to the top spot in the Supporters' Shield standings before a last-minute loss at Vancouver last week ended a seven-game unbeaten streak that included six victories. It's been about the attack, mostly, with Chavez the key addition -- his speed and dynamism has added dimensions, but he's out 2 to 4 weeks with a hamstring strain -- for a group that's scored 21 goals in 10 games, hitting at least three on three occasions. Wondolowski gets most of them, but he's got a fabulous support network, with Lenhart's gritty work up front and service from Dawkins and Baca in midfield. They're off to the best 10-game start in club history and have wins over Seattle and Real Salt Lake and a draw in New York in which they deserved all three points.
Out: M Marvin Iraheta (right ACL tear).
Questionable: M Ben Zemanski (right MCL sprain).
SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES
Out: D Victor Bernardez (left knee MCL sprain), M Marvin Chavez (left hamstring strain), M Joey Gjertsen (right knee surgery), F Alan Gordon (left hamstring strain), M Shea Salinas (left clavicle fracture), D Tim Ward (left non-specific soft tissue injury).
Buck Shaw Stadium (Santa Clara), 4 p.m.
Referee: Ricardo Salazar
Radio: W Radio (XEWW/690, Spanish)