MLS Preview ’12 – San Jose Earthquakes
Team: San Jose Earthquakes
Coach: Frank Yallop
Last Season: 8-12-14, 7th Western Conference, 14th Overall
Although it is an overused phrase, this year is a critical year for the San Jose ‘Quakes. The team is at a crossroads and this season will show if the newer franchise with the classic name can create a permanent and financially successful presence in the San Jose area. Is this a bit alarmist, considering that they are two years removed from making a deep playoff run and have as the face of their franchise one of the five best goal scorers in MLS? Maybe but consider the circumstances surrounding this team:
- Shirt sponsor since 2008 Amway and the club parted ways in the offseason and, as can be seen on the jersey, the team is keeping its main sponsor spot open for either Amway or a new partner to sign up with the team.
- The San Jose Planning Council has approved the team breaking ground on its new soccer specific stadium, a major win for the team that promises not only a major financial windfall (the team has sold 10 of 12 field-level suites in the new stadium according to The Sporting News) but creates a shiny new home to keep current fans and attract new ones.
- Head coach Frank Yallop seemingly lost his team in the middle of last season before ending 2011 making a very late playoff push. Despite his pedigree and past success, this could be a definitive season for him.
Off the field the team has a lot going on but on the field this is a sneaky good team. This winter Yallop and the front office rebuilt the team to be speedier on the wings with the goal of creating more scoring chances for Chris Wondolowski and the other forwards. Unfortunately, in the stacked Western Conference this team could be much improved but have little to show for it in the standings.
Coaching Staff and Front Office: Frank Yallop has an impressive resume and a number of current MLS stars (as well as star coach Dominic Kinnear) were formed by him. So to doubt his coaching ability means there has been some really poor play on the field last season, and in fact there was. The ‘Quakes were inconsistent, but that could also be blamed on injuries and absences. Yallop is still a quality coach, but this season will go a long way to showing if he can still hold the attention of this roster.
We’ll begin looking at the newest ‘Quakes with a little bit of MLS history. New signee Sercan Guvenisik is the first Turkish-born player in MLS history, but the veteran lower-level German league player gives the team solid depth at forward and a tall scoring option off the bench. Three new midfielders that are all fighting for starting jobs were brought in before Christmas 2011. Marvin Chavez could have been the steal of the offseason
when he came over from FC Dallas for allocation money and will be counted on to contribute a few goals (he notched six with FC Dallas in ’11) while playing the wing or even up front.
Also joining the midfield is RSL super-sub Jean Alexandre via trade. The Haitian is a speedy player who could play the wing or, as he did in Salt Lake City, provide cover as a holding midfielder. He has always been a player with potential, but now the 25-year-old will have the chance to make that next step. Shea Salinas comes home
to the team that drafted him in 2008 after a trade with Vancouver that again gives Yallop an option in midfield or off the bench. To help a defense that was offensive at times last season, the team acquired centerback Victor Bernardez who was injured recently
in a preseason match.
But the biggest acquisition may have been the most recent. Midfielder Simon Dawkins returns on loan from Tottenham Hotspur
after he spent some time this offseason on loan to FC Twente. When 100%, Dawkins was a dynamic threat from the midfield who scored six goals and contributed two assists but could create opportunities in space. With his return unknown, this was a huge lift for the team and fans.
When a player with the reputation like Bobby Convey’s is traded, it is usually a major detriment to his team. But what is lost in talent is gained in clubhouse chemistry
as Convey was seemingly a major headache to management and his team. Soem familiar names on defense like Nana Attakora, Bobby Burling, and Chris Leitch are gone but the defense needed a retooling anyway.
Projected Starters: Your starting keeper is Jon Busch who is a leader on this team and a good keeper. The interesting story for this position is the #2 spot, with current backup David Bingham fighting for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team and potentially looking for more playing time with another club. However, this is a problem any team would like to have. Consider this part of the field set and a strength.
The back four will be talented but thin. Returning right back Steven Beitashour was an assist machine and can push up to help the attack. At left back, it will be a battle between original ‘Quake Ramiro Corrales and Justin Morrow with Corrales having a slight edge due to on-field leadership. In the center, Ike Opara is a rising star who is finally getting attention from the U.S. national team staff and is a very good defender with good height. The problem is he needs to remain healthy and take that next step for him to enter the conversation with players like Omar Gonzalez for future U.S. national defenders. Next to him will be Jason Hernandez but Bernardez could challenge for this spot depending on his injury. If any of these players are injured, yikes and hide your eyes.
The composition of the midfield will depend on whether Yallop sticks with his tried-and-true 4-4-2 diamond or tries a 4-3-3. If he needs a holding midfielder, look for veteran Sam Cronin or Alexandre to get the first crack at manning that position and spearheading the San Jose attack. On the wings it looks like Salinas and Chavez will start, although with Dawkins studying the playing style of Sami Nasri
he could be a wing option. Another new midfielder who will push to start is Tressor Moreno
, who will push Khari Stephenson for the starting attacking midfielder role atop the diamond. There are numerous options Yallop can use, so it will be key for him to find the few that work and get those combinations to gel.
The forwards are more defined. Chris Wondolowski will start when healthy since the past two years he has scored the most goals of any MLS player. Wondo is streaky to the max, so he either needs to become a bit more consistent or rely on his fellow forwards to pick up the slack. That other forward who will provide scoring cover is Steven Lenhart. If he can play as well as he did before leaving the team in July, San Jose will score a lot of goals. Behind those two is veteran Alan Gordon and Guvenisik, who are excellent depth for the occasional goal but cannot be relied upon to start numerous games for a playoff team.
Player to Watch: Steven Lenhart is the key to the success of this team. No offense to Gordon or Guvenisik, but Lenhart is able to force teams to respect both ‘Quakes forwards and give Wondolowski more chances to score. In May and June, when San Jose was playing its best last season, he scored four goals and two assists. If he can bring that attacking ability to the whole season, San Jose’s offense could be close to the best in the league.
Best Case Scenario: FC Dallas and RSL fans shake their heads as they look up to San Jose in the standings, primarily due to the fact that the rebuilt ‘Quakes midfield dominates games like no other. While they do not challenge for the Supporters’ Shield and cannot dent the LA/Seattle hold on the top of the conference, San Jose rides some upsets in the playoffs into the Western Conference finals. Wondo wins his second Golden Boot in three season, Dawkins goes back to England permanently as Spurs see he’s ready for the top flight, and Bingham is not the only player to be wooed by a European club in the offseason.
Worst Case Scenario: Opara is one of a number of injured defenders and the backline gives Busch no coverage. Wondo is as he has always been, scoring in bunches, but the promising midfield cannot create chances for the other forwards and San Jose loses a number of 3-1 matches. They slide to the bottom of a stacked Western Conference and take a hard look at the MLS drafts as a way to rebuild again. And Bobby Convey wins an MLS Cup.
Prediction: Here is the key to the season: four of the team’s first seven games are against teams that did not make the playoffs in 2011, while seven of the first eleven games are at home. If San Jose can get out to a strong start and weather a stretch this summer with six of seven games on the road against playoff contenders, then this team can slip into the final Western Conference playoff spot. San Jose will be better but their unbalanced schedule has some tough road trips (twice to Seattle and Portland, once to Sporting KC and New York). The ‘Quakes will finish seventh again in the Western Conference, but will be in the playoff hunt until the final month.