Inside MLS season preview: San Jose Earthquakes
Last year in a nutshell: Instead of building upon their Supporters' Shield triumph in 2012, the Earthquakes stumbled in the early stages and eventually missed out on the postseason despite a torrid end to the season.
(as of March 4)
Incoming: GK: Bryan Meredith (New York Cosmos); DF: Brandon Barklage (New York), Shaun Francis (Chicago), Andreas Görlitz (unattached); MF: Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi (Ajaccio/France), J.J. Koval (Stanford), Tommy Thompson (Indiana – Homegrown); FW: Atiba Harris (Colorado), Billy Schuler (Hammarby/Sweden)
Outgoing: GK: Evan Newton (unattached); DF: Nana Attakora (D.C. United), Steven Beitashour (Vancouver), Dan Gargan (unattached), Peter McGlynn (unattached), Justin Morrow (Toronto FC); MF: Jaime Alas (Ballenas Galeana/Mexico), Rafael Baca (Cruz Azul/Mexico), Mehdi Ballouchy (Vancouver), Marvin Chávez (Colorado), Ramiro Corrales (retired); FW: Cesar Diaz Pizarro (unattached), Marcus Tracy (unattached)
Key Player: Opposing defenses still do not know how to thwart Chris Wondolowski. The continued befuddlement stems from Wondolowski's ability to anticipate the play, move quickly into dangerous areas and finish moves reliably. His presence up front allows the Earthquakes to operate directly from front to back because he functions so astutely off his teammates. His reliable supply of goals (11 last season despite a toe injury and international duties, 72 in the past four seasons) always offers the Earthquakes a chance to claim a result at the death or triumph in matches where they do not perform to their usual expectations.
Strengths: San Jose expects to produce results by keeping things tight at the back, proceeding briskly through midfield and snatching goals through a combination of brute force and hard work. Earthquakes boss Mark Watson focused on the structure of the side when he took over last year and reaped the benefits by shoring up lingering defensive concerns. The veteran back four – marshaled ably by U.S. international Clarence Goodson in front of steady goalkeeper Jon Busch – gives little away inside its own half. The fullbacks push up to provide some support, but they tend defensive duties carefully. Sam Cronin and Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi offer plenty of cover in those efforts with their diligence in central midfield. They shuttle the ball quickly to fleet wingers Cordell Cato and Shea Salinas and upward toward the forward pairing. Much of the Earthquakes' success hinges on Wondolowski's ability to play off one of several partners – Alan Gordon, Steven Lenhart and Adam Jahn will all see time this year – and poach reliably when provided with service. His goals – plus the usual contributions from others on set pieces – will prove crucial to the side's chances again this year, particularly with the composition of the side in midfield.
Weaknesses: The increased emphasis on structure leaves little room for creativity or incisiveness in the approach play. This team plays a certain and often effective way, but it lacks the sort of alternatives required over the course of a 34-game season and struggles to combat teams capable of retaining possession under duress. The setup also heaps ample pressure on the wingers – a group that did not perform up to expectation last season, particular with its final ball – to keep the supply lines open at all costs to diversify matters. Steven Beitashour's departure reduces the options even further. His overlapping runs on the right provided a crucial outlet for the side last season. Durability is a significant concern alongside Wondolowski with preferred options Gordon (24 appearances) and Lenhart (21 appearances) often hindered by injuries. And if Wondolowski suffers an injury at any point to reduce his effectiveness (like the toe injury incurred last season), then the Earthquakes are in big, big trouble.
PROSPECTS FOR 2014
● Will the defensive restructuring repel the opposition?: Watson focused on shape and structure when he took interim charge last season. Those tenets underpin the Earthquakes' efforts again this season. The veteran composition of the back four and the presence of Cronin and Pierazzi in central midfield ensures the team possesses the necessary tools to continue its defensive improvements in 2014.
● Are the wide players primed to supply?: San Jose excelled two years ago by unleashing its wingers down either side and maintaining direct, steady lines to the front two. The efforts in this particular department dropped off noticeably last season with Marvin Chávez (now in Colorado) a particular disappointment. The personnel here isn't quite as strong as in previous seasons, but the fundamental tenets – get the ball wide, serve it into the box – persist nevertheless.
● Who will provide the creativity?: The brisk style of play from back to front removes the burden from the central midfielders to pick passes on a regular basis, but it also creates a rather one-dimensional approach and limits the alternatives available if those efforts falter. The lingering absence of a traditional number 10 – former Honduran international Walter Martínez represents the most likely stand-in, but he doesn't quite fit the role and he isn't a regular starter – leaves the Earthquakes without a player capable of unlocking defenses prepared to cope with the streamlined fare.
Best case scenario: Last year represents a mere blip along the road. The emphasis on the rearguard produces more clean sheets and reduces the burden on the attack to score two or three times per match to procure results. The usual operating procedures flummox the opposition once more and provide plenty of opportunities for Wondolowski to float away from his defenders and sweep home. A spot in the postseason beckons once again.
Worst case scenario: The improved defensive work always gives the Earthquakes a chance to win games, but the dearth of attacking options leaves them vulnerable on any given day. Wondolowski receives precious little support and suffers an injury somewhere along the way. His teammates can't compensate accordingly. Another quiet November results.
2014 INSIDE MLS SEASON PREVIEWS
MARCH 6: Toronto FC – Vancouver Whitecaps