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Preview: Union at Earthquakes

Saturday’s 1-0 shutout win against the Chicago Fire helped the Philadelphia Union (6-11-6) keep their playoff hopes alive, but an arduous climb lies ahead. The Union are nine points behind the San Jose Earthquakes (9-7-6) and Seattle Sounders for the final two spots, with Wednesday's showdown with San Jose providing an opportunity to close the gap to six. San Jose took three points in the last meeting between the two clubs with a 2-1 win at PPL Park on July 10, but the final score didn't reflect the home side's dominance throughout the match.

Philadelphia are riding a season high three-match unbeaten streak in MLS play, four counting an impressive 1-0 win against Chivas Guadalajara. The strength of Manager Peter Nowak’s side during the stretch has been the defense, a distinct reversal from earlier in the season. With only two goals allowed over the last four matches in all competitions, the club appears to be over their expansion blues on the defensive side of the ball. The Union have allowed only 15 total goals over their last 17 matches in all competitions, excluding a 3-1 loss to Dallas during which Philadelphia played down a man for most of the match. The club sits in sixth place in the Eastern Conference with 24 points from 23 matches, ahead of New England based on a head-to-head tiebreaker.

The San Jose Earthquakes are coming off a scoreless draw with FC Dallas on Saturday at Buck Shaw Stadium and are currently in a tie for fifth place in the Western Conference with 33 points from 22 matches. With eight matches to play, Head Coach Frank Yallop’s squad holds a five-point lead over their closest suitor, Toronto FC, with two matches in hand on the faltering Canadian side. San Jose's nine wins are tied for the most since the franchise returned to San Jose in 2008.

The Union have done well to avoid being shutout of late, with only one scoreless showing in their last 13. The club is struggling to amass more than a single goal per match, however, with multiple tallies only once in the last nine contests. Goals will be at a premium on Wednesday, with the Earthquakes riding a home shutout streak of 334 minutes. The Quakes have registered nine shutouts on the season, with current starter Jon Busch in net for three of them.

Sebastien Le Toux continued his MVP caliber season with the lone goal against Chicago, giving the Frenchman 11 goals and 10 assists on the season, a combined mark that leads MLS. Justin Mapp has emerged as a playmaking force over the last four matches in all competitions as well, with a goal and four assists during the stretch. The club’s second leading scorer, Danny Mwanga, is traveling to San Jose, but his status is uncertain following a slight shoulder separation suffered against Chicago.

For San Jose, Chris Wondowlowski leads the club by a wide margin with eight goals, more than double the total of anyone else. His positioning likely depends on the health of Khari Stephenson, who normally occupies a central attacking midfielder spot alongside recent Designated Player signee Geovanni. With Stephenson out against Dallas, Wondlowski spent a lot of time interchanging with Geovanni in the middle, but he’ll likely slide back to a wide position if San Jose’s midfield is at full strength Wednesday.

Bobby Convey paces the club in assists with nine, despite spending three matches at left back to fill a void left by Ramiro Corrales’ sprained left knee. With Tim Ward -- who was acquired by the club on August 6 -- now occupying the defensive spot, Convey is free to roam the flanks again, his more natural role. The Philadelphia native’s assist total is tied for third in MLS, along with Fredy Montero and David Ferreira, and third in game-winning assists with four.

Despite a 2-1 win against New England in their last road match, the Union have struggled to a 2-9-1 record away from PPL Park this season. The key against San Jose, who are 5-3-3 at home, will be striking early, as the Earthquakes are 8-0-2 when scoring first and 5-0-2 when leading at halftime.

Matchups to watch:

Geovanni vs Stefani Miglioranzi

The Quakes’ recent addition of Geovanni immediately made them more dangerous, with the Brazilian bringing his talents and experience from clubs like Barcelona, Manchester City, Benfica and Hull City to a San Jose side who were in need of an offensive spark. The 30-year-old commands attention in the middle of the pitch and has the vision to unlock opposing clubs even when he receives it. Geovanni showed his class against Houston in just his first start, scoring the game-winner and adding an assist in a 2-1 win.

The responsibility of containing Geovanni will fall at least in part to Miglioranzi, who was a rock against Chicago, stifling Nery Castillo and Freddie Ljungberg on numerous occasions during the match. Defensive midfield duties will be shared with either Andrew Jacobson or Eduardo Coudet, possibly determined by Coudet’s recovery from a right calf strain (listed as questionable). If the Union’s defensive midfield duo can limit Geovanni’s penetration into the defensive third, the backline will have an opportunity to register its third straight shutout in all competitions.

Sebastien Le Toux vs Jon Busch

What else can be said about Le Toux? He’s done everything for the Union in one of the most remarkable breakout seasons in MLS history. His intangibles are as impressive as his 21 combined goals and assists, which is saying an awful lot about a player contributing to 77.8 percent of his club’s goals (the MLS record is 61.1 percent, set by RSL Head Coach Jason Kreis in 1999). After a five-match goal drought, Le Toux has tallied in two straight, putting him in third place in the Golden Boot race three behind Edson Buddle. His 10 assists currently rank second in the league behind only Landon Donovan’s 14.

The 26-year-old's next potential victim? Busch, who won’t concede easily. The 34-year-old's 0.90 GAA currently ranks fourth in MLS, albeit in limited action, which shouldn't be all that surprising for a 'keeper who has kept 10 clean sheets in each of the last two seasons with Chicago. Busch has compiled a 3-3-4 overall record and three shutouts this season, serving as a savior for the Quakes in the process after Joe Cannon went down with a broken ankle. Busch's defense is bolstered with right back Chris Leitch's return to health, but Le Toux and the Union are a tough side to shut down entirely. Especially with Mwanga a question mark, San Jose's ability to hold down Le Toux may determine the outcome Wednesday night.

More Analysis

Watch: San Jose Preview

Union Focused on SJ, Not Playoffs

Union Looking to Gain Ground vs SJ

Mwanga Improving, Traveling to SJ

Play by Play Plus: First MLS Shutout Gives Union Hope

Last Match Highlights

Philadelphia 1, Chicago 0

San Jose 0, Dallas 0

Philadelphia Union Injury Report

QUESTIONABLE: DF Toni Stahl (R ankle strain), DF Juan Diego Gonzalez (R groin strain), MF Eduardo Coudet (R calf strain), FW Danny Mwanga (L shoulder sprain)

PROBABLE: DF Michael Orozco Fiscal (L hamstring strain), MF Fred (R groin strain)

San Jose Earthquakes Injury Report

OUT: MF Andre Luiz (L knee surgery), DF Ike Opara (L foot fracture), GK Joe Cannon (L ankle fracture), DF Ramiro Corrales (L knee sprain)

QUESTIONABLE: MF Khari Stephenson (L ankle sprain)

Match Information

Date: Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Time: 10:00pm ET

Location: Buck Shaw Stadium (Santa Clara, CA)

Television: Live Well HD Network/MyNetworkTV WQMY

Talent: JP Dellacamera (Play-by-Play), Kyle Martino (Color Analyst)

Referee: Silviu Petrescu. SAR (bench): Ian Anderson; JAR (opposite): Chris Strickland; 4th: Yader Reyes