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Quakes face tall task, thin air in Toluca

Trailing 3-2 with barely five minutes remaining in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal last Tuesday, San Jose supporters chanted in unison:

“We are gon-na win in Toluca!”

The Quakes would eventually equalize in the 95th minute, giving the club a crucial goal and the fans even more confidence. But San Jose will have to overcome significant obstacles far from home Wednesday night to advance past the Mexican side.

First, there’s the obvious: Toluca are a very good team playing with a unique home field advantage. Toluca’s home stadium, Estadio Nemesio Díez, sits at nearly 9,000 feet above sea level.

The Earthquakes traveled to Mexico on Sunday in an effort to spend a few days acclimating to the decreased oxygen, even practicing on a helicopter pad Monday.

Winning at Estadio Nemesio Diez is a tall task. Toluca are undefeated in five games this season when playing at their fortress, only allowing two goals in those five and keeping clean sheets in their last four. Toluca are second in the Liga MX standings taking 25 points from 11 games.

San Jose did eventually salvage a point in the last minute on Tuesday, Toluca nearly won the match even while resting multiple first teamers including Brazilian playmaker Antonio “Sinha” Naelson and standout Paraguayan forward Pablo Velázquez.

The Earthquakes also must overcome issues within their own side.

Jason Hernandez’s quad injury, suffered during San Jose’s home opener on Saturday, further depletes the Quakes’ options in defense for Wednesday’s fixture.

CONCACAF Player of the Week Victor Bernardez is suspended after accumulating a second yellow in CCL competition Tuesday, and first-teamer’s Clarence Goodson (calf) and Jordan Stewart (hamstring) are doubtful according to Coach Mark Watson.

Recently-acquired German right-back Andreas Gorlitz is also yet to make his debut due to a hamstring injury, while the Quakes other right-back, Brandon Barklage, was a late scratch last Saturday and is doubtful for tomorrow.

 It’s likely the Earthquakes will be without their entire starting backline on Wednesday, with the only avalable center-backs being rookie Joe Sofia of UCLA, who is yet to make a first-team appearance and MLS veteran Ty Harden, who still hasn’t fully recovered from season-ending hip surgery last year.

San Jose may be forced to change their preferred 4-4-2 and play with three at the back due to the lack of available defenders.  The Quakes’ recent comebacks both came after switching to a three-man backline, but it’s unclear whether that spine will be strong enough under the lights in southern Mexico.

The Earthquakes will need to accomplish at least a 1-1 draw in regulation to force a penalty shootout, and will have to either win 1-0 or draw 2-2 to win outright.

The CONCACAF Champions League features the away goals rule in which an aggregate draw after two legs is broken by the side with the most away goals scored in regulation.  A 0-0 draw Wednesday would lead to a 1-1 aggregate, with Toluca advancing due to their goal at Buck Shaw Stadium.

Kickoff is at 5 p.m. PT on FOX Sports 2 and Univision Deportes Network with an official club viewing party at the Britannia Arms in Downtown San Jose.

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