MLS 2011 Preview: San Jose Earthquakes Try To Build On Surprising 2010

Who do you expect to be in starting XI at First Kick?

In general, San Jose Earthquakes coach Frank Yallop has been sending out one of two variations of the 4-3-3 formation during much of the 2011 preseason. When going with the two-striker approach -- a 4-3-1-2 formation -- Ryan Johnson and Steven Lenhart are supported up top by Chris Wondolowski in a withdrawn forward role. Sam Cronin anchors the defensive midfielder role while Bobby Convey and Joey Gjertsen play on the left and right wings respectively. When utilizing a lone-striker formation -- a 4-2-3-1 set-up -- one of Lenhart or Johnson retreats to the midfield and Wondolowski pushes out to the wing replacing Gjertsen. Room in the midfield allow Khari Stephenson to pair with Cronin in the center of the field. In all variations of the Earthquakes formation, the defensive back four has remained consistent (not taking into account injuries) with Ramiro Corrales, Jason Hernandez, Brandon McDonald, and Tim Ward going left to right. Goalkeeper Jon Busch is cemented at the number one for the foreseeable future.

Which new player(s) will have biggest impact?

A lot is expected of Lenhart as the newest Earthquake to take on the target forward responsibilities demanded by Yallop’s tactical system. With very few changes expected in the list of 18 players that will dress each week in the early part of this season when compared to 2010, Lenhart will be asked to be the difference maker for an offense that was overly reliant on Wondolowski for its scoring punch. He has already proved in the preseason that he can play well alongside the more established Earthquakes, and he should have plenty of opportunities to score in double digits in 2011.

Which player(s) loss will be felt the most?

The biggest name player to leave in the offseason was Brazilian designated player Geovanni. A victim of cost cutting by the Earthquakes, the attacking midfielder never really delivered in his time with San Jose, and the team qualified for the postseason despite his presence. More likely to be missed in 2011 is speedy winger Arturo Alvarez, now with Real Salt Lake. The El Salvador International with the deadly left footed shot -- and no right foot shot to speak of -- allowed the Quakes to push forward in attack and often surprise defenses on the counterattack. With his scoring and passing stats somewhat lacking in his tenure in San Jose, the loss of Alvarez should be relatively minimal in the upcoming season.

At what point is this season considered success?

The Earthquakes captured the final spot in the 2010 playoff qualification standings -- tied with MLS Cup champion Colorado Rapids on points -- and will be satisfied to accomplish much the same in 2011. While the team seems poised to make the playoffs with pretty much the same roster as last season, a step forward to a top three in the conference and a guaranteed berth in the playoff semifinals will mark the 2011 season as a success.

Whose performance do you think will be most indicative of the season as a whole?

If Wondolowski can get some help in tallying goals for the Earthquakes in 2011 -- he scored greater than half the team’s goals in 2010 -- a playoff berth will be well within reach. Look for Lenhart’s scoring total to be a barometer of whether the offense is doing its job in 2011. Defensively, the Earthquakes will rely on the deft goalkeeping of Busch. Very much solid and often spectacular between the posts, while sharing playing time with expansion draft selected Joe Cannon, Busch will need to have another fine season in goal for the Earthquakes to make up for their lack of a potent offense.

Will Wondolowski defend his scoring title in 2011 and take home a second Golden Boot award?

While Wondolowski is certainly capable of putting up big numbers again this season, no one with the team wants him to have to do so. And even though forward Johnson did well in a providing role in 2010, he’ll be called upon to more closely duplicate his 2009 campaign as the team’s go-to goal scorer. Lenhart, entering his fourth year in MLS, should also do much to lessen the responsibility on Wondolowski to be the chief producer. Add in a full season from midfielders Khari Stephenson and Joey Gjertsen, along with the potential set-piece potency of centerback Ike Opara, and the Earthquakes goal scoring distribution with most likely even out in 2011. Perhaps with opposing defenses being concerned about mulitple attacking threats, and unable to key solely on Wondolowski, he will again challenge for the MLS goal scoring crown.

What happens in 2011 if Busch suffers the same injury fate as Cannon?

In a weighted lottery in January, San Jose was awarded the rights to late Generation adidas signing David Bingham, a junior goalkeeper from the University of California. While a great talent at the college level, many expect Bingham to need time as Jon Busch's understudy for at least this season, and perhaps for some time after. Bingham is battling with Andrew Weber, who made two starts in the 2009 season for the Earthquakes before being released by the club early last season and resigning this preseason, for the back-up spot behind Busch. If either is needed early in the season, expect Weber to get his chance in goal, but Bingham has already a fine preseason with the team, and could be ready to be an effective starter later in 2011. However, make no mistake, the Earthquakes will be hoping Busch stays healthy for the entirety of the season, and they don't need to rely on an untested goalkeeper to lead them to the playoffs.

- Report by Robert Jonas of Quake, Rattle and Goal (San Jose Earthquakes blog)

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