San Jose Earthquakes can surprise again with another playoff run

The were few better success stories in 2010 than the San Jose Earthquakes. After years of struggling as an expansion side, the Earthquakes compiled a collection of players other teams didn’t want and Frank Yallop built himself an overachieving team that came within a game of the MLS Cup Final.

From the likes of Jon Busch, Sam Cronin and Tim Ward, who were all dumped by other MLS teams last year only to thrive with San Jose, to Chris Wondolowski, who emerged from relative obscurity to win the MLS Golden Boot and earn U.S. national team consideration, the Earthquakes were unquestionably one of the surprises of 2011.

Now the Earthquakes face the pressure of trying to improve on that, or even maintaining that level. In order to do so, they will need Wondolowski to work some more magic and stay close to the blistering 18-goal pace he set in 2010.

Wondolowski worked his magic both from the forward and midfield positions, but may spend more time in midfield with the arrival of Lenhart, who could form a solid partnership with Ryan Johnson up top. Lenhart posted a modest six goals and two assists for Columbus last season and is a safe bet to surpass that mark once he recovers from recent knee surgery and settles in as a regular.

As impressive as Wondolowski’s numbers were in 2010, it can be argued that Bobby Convey was the Earthquakes best player. The left winger delivered a career-high ten assists and was one of the best left-sided players in the league. Looking fully healthy for the first time in years, Convey thrived and will be needed to dominate again in 2011 if San Jose will compete in the loaded Western Conference.

Another player who could make a major impact in 2011 is Ike Opara, who had a promising rookie season cut short by injury. He played just 11 games last season, but was already making waves as a Rookie of the Year candidate in that short amount of time, with his freakish athleticism bolstering the back-line and his goal-scoring capabilities making San Jose a bigger threat on set pieces.

Combined with veterans Jason Hernandez, Brandon McDonald, Ramiro Corrales, Chris Leitch and Ward, Opara gives San Jose one of the deepest defenses in the league. A defense boosted by the presence of Busch in goal. Busch beat out standout Joe Cannon for the job after being cut loose by Chicago and will be the undisputed man in net now that Cannon has moved on to Vancouver.

The Earthquakes are probably still a star player away from being able to challenge the likes of Real Salt Lake and Los Angeles at the top of the Western Conference, but with a full pre-season together, the band of misfits that came together to make a surprising playoff run in 2010 will look more like a team in 2011 and should find its way into the playoffs for a second straight season.

SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES

KEY LOSSES: Joe Cannon, Geovanni

NEW ARRIVALS: Steven Lenhart, David Bingham

BIGGEST QUESTION: Can Chris Wondolowski do it again? It might be a stretch to expect Wondolowski to deliver anywhere close to 18 goals again, but the Earthquakes will need him to score a dozen goals or more in order to remain a strong playoff contender. The addition of Steven Lenhart could mean fewer minutes up top for Wondolowski, who may have to trade in some goals for assists this season. Either way, the Earthquakes will need him to spark the attack.

X-FACTOR: Ike Opara. Before suffering a broken foot, you could argue that Opara was looking like a potential runaway Rookie of the Year favorite. He has all-star ability, and while he still has some learning to do, don’t be surprised if he emerges as a U.S. national team factor and Best XI candidate.

OUTLOOK: Frank Yallop’s team overachieved last season, but the fact is the squad has talent. The Earthquakes may not be a legitimate MLS Cup contender, but if there’s a team that can fight and scrap its way to a surprising championship like Colorado did in 2010, it could be the Earthquakes. If Wondolowski and Convey keep playing at their 2010 levels, and some of the Earthquake youngsters mature into impact players, San Jose will be a team to watch in the post-season.

Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.