FOXBORO, MA - OCTOBER 8: Chris Wondolowski #8 of the San Jose Earthquakes reacts after scoring a goal against the New England Revolution at Gillette Stadium on October 8, 2011 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
The Earthquakes have their eyes on the 2012 MLS Cup playoffs after a bevy of offseason acquisitions writes Quake, Rattle and Goal's Robert Jonas.
2011 record (finish): 8-12-14 (7th in West)
Key additions: Marvin Chávez (M), Víctor Bernárdez (D), Tressor Moreno (M/F), Shea Salinas (M), Jean-Marc Alexandre (M), Sercan Guvenisik (F), Sam Garza (M).
Key losses: Bobby Convey (M), Bobby Burling (D), Nana Attakora (D), Scott Sealy (F).
Projected starting XI: Jon Busch; Ramiro Corrales (C), Ike Opara, Victor Bernádez, Steven Beitashour, Shea Salinas, Sam Cronin, Simon Dawkins, Marvin Chávez, Chris Wondolowski, Steven Lenhart.
Bold prediction: Chris Wondolowski will win his second MLS Golden Boot award in three years.
Biggest fear: Injuries to attacking midfielders Simon Dawkins and Tressor Moreno doom the Earthquakes to another season of offensive paucity.
The San Jose Earthquakes finished the 2011 season with high hopes for 2012 fueled in part by a return to a more creative style of play in the attacking third and in part due to the realization that Chris Wondolowski was the real deal on offense. Perhaps due to the spirited optimism that permeated a six-game stretch of sellout crowds at tiny Buck Shaw Stadium that made even the most jaded fans forget a 13-game summer winless streak, the Earthquakes' series of offseason moves have the Blue-and-Black faithful pining for a return to the MLS Cup playoffs in 2012.
However, for all the positive moves made by General Manager John Doyle and Head Coach Frank Yallop over the past three months, the fact remains that the Earthquakes may have only been successful in keeping the talent gap between them and the top MLS teams from growing any wider than could be expected for the chronically thrifty organization. That the Earthquakes are even considered playoff contenders in a stacked Western Conference speaks volumes about the halcyon days a promising preseason can deliver. The additions to the club are noteworthy, but a careful look at the projected opening day line-up does not show much difference from the side that limped to a seventh place finish in 2011.
With malcontent winger Bobby Convey trying to make a fresh start in Kansas City and serviceable midfielder Joey Gjertsen unavailable while recuperating from offseason surgery, the Earthquakes have made significant upgrades at the two outside midfielder positions. Speedsters Shea Salinas and Marvin Chávez have the potential to keep opposing defenders on their heels, and both will be expected to provide a steady diet of sumptuous crosses into the box for Chris Wondolowski and Steven Lenhart to bang home. Slotting into the middle of the attacking group will be one of either returning Spurs loan product Simon Dawkins or Colombian playmaker Tressor Moreno. The ability to distribute the ball across the field and keep possession was not a strong suit for last year's bunch, but with a quality technical specialist connecting the offensive dots in front of the opponent's area, the opportunity to play more than just a kick-and-pray style in front of goal should emerge.
And given the state of the Earthquakes defense, the team had better score a bevy of goals in 2012 if they want to be factors in the MLS Cup playoff chase come September. The centerback duo of Jason Hernandez and Bobby Burling did their best to keep games close in 2011, but they would have been put to shame if not for the heroic efforts of goalkeeper Jon Busch to deny opponents' attackers. Burling was selected in the MLS Expansion Draft and now resides somewhere in no-contract limbo while Hernandez has slowly been working his way back from offseason surgery and is close to regaining a spot in the Earthquakes starting XI. Hoping to improve on the team's dreadful defensive results of a year ago, the team signed Honduran international Víctor Bernárdez to anchor the back line and rehabilitated a broken Ike Opara to play alongside him. Add into the mix the emergence of erstwhile left back Justin Morrow as an option in the center, and the Earthquakes just might have what it takes to keep their 2012 goal differential in more positive territory.
Improvements on offense and a potential rejuvenation on defense might spell out the recipe for a serious postseason berth push this season. At the very least, the San Jose Earthquakes of 2012 will surely be an exciting sight to watch on both sides of the ball, and with a little luck along the way, might pip the last of the five conference playoff spots on offer.
- Robert Jonas, Quake, Rattle and Goal