Tweaks, Not Overhaul Have Fueled Earthquakes' Turn In Fortunes

SANTA CLARA, CA - APRIL 21: Tressor Moreno of the San Jose Earthquakes tries to keep the ball away from Alvaro Saboru #15 of the Real Salt Lake at Buck Shaw Stadium on April 21, 2012 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Rather than tear down and start over, the Earthquakes front office identified specific areas in need of fixing and addressed them.

The talk most of this season has centered around a few teams. We've discussed the expectations and subsequent collapse of the LA Galaxy. I marveled at the scoring acumen of the New York Red Bulls. Much virtual ink has been a surely will be spilled gushing over Sporting Kansas City. There's been much rending of garments over the struggles of Toronto FC.

But the story of the season after Week 7 has to be the San Jose Earthquakes. A team very few people had much expectations for at the start of the year currently sits atop the Western Conference with 16 points (5-1-1) through seven matches and a conference-leading +8 goal difference.

Making that start even more impressive is who they've done it against. Their last four games have come at Seattle (a 1-0 win), vs. Vancouver (3-1 win), at New York (2-2 tie) and vs. Real Salt Lake (3-1 win). Collectively, those four teams are 17-8-6 with a +11 goal-difference. Take out their games against the Earthquakes, and they are 17-5-5 with +16 goal-difference.

Sure, you can definitely argue that the Earthquakes have been a little fortunate during this five-game unbeaten run (they beat Toronto FC 3-0 at home to get it started). To beat the Seattle Sounders, they needed a very questionable penalty. In their win over RSL on Saturday, the winning margin was provided by a pair of stoppage-time goals after they had gone up by two men.

But those are really mere footnotes when you consider how far this team has already come this season.

Just last year, they were one of the worst teams in MLS after going 8-12-14 and missing the playoffs for the third time in four years since returning to the league. Maybe worse than the transgression of being bad, they were also a pretty boring team. Their 40 goals were fewer than all but three teams and aside from Chris Wondolowski, there really wasn't a marketable player on that team.

Frank Yallop, John Doyle and company knew something was going to have to give, and they deserve much credit for tinkering with their squad when the desire must have been there to totally remake it.

Rather than attempt to tear down what they had spent the last four years trying to build, they found a few key elements that were missing. The biggest piece was finding some speed and creativity in the midfield. Up until last week, Shea Salinas and Marvin Chavez -- both of whom were apparently deemed expendable by other MLS teams -- have been causing all kinds of trouble for the opposition. They've combined for just one goal and three assists, but the pressure they help create has helped the Earthquakes on both ends of the field.

Last week proved to be a real test, though, as the Earthquakes were forced to play without both of them. Salinas is out several more weeks with a broken collarbone, while Chavez was serving a one-game suspension for a harsh tackle.

In stepped Tressor Moreno and Simon Dawkins. Despite this just being the second start of the season for both players, each had strong games. Moreno, who played more centrally and forced Rafael Baca to move out wide, was the game's most active player. He logged 137 actions according to Opta and essentially played the role of Salinas or Chavez by harrying opponents, but in the middle of the park. Dawkins was a perfectly efficient 40-for-48 passing and even added a goal for good measure.

The midfield play has really allowed Wondolowski even more freedom to do his thing up top. He scored again on Saturday, bagging one of his patented "How the heck was he unmarked at the far post" goals that seem to have become his calling card. Wondolowski now has eight goals through seven games, a faster start than either of the past two seasons when he led the league in goal scoring.

The Quakes defense hasn't been half bad, either. Their five goals allowed are fewer than all but two teams and Jon Busch is having himself another stellar season. Again, this was a situation where tweaks were done, rather than attempting an overhaul. The only big addition in the back was Victor Bernardez, who has really solidified the back line. The massive Honduran has provided a physical presence that simply hasn't been there in the past.

But he, too, was missing on Saturday, opening the door for Ike Opara to make his long-awaited return. The Quakes held up just fine, allowing RSL just eight attempts on goal and were only a spectacular effort from Kyle Beckerman away from logging their fourth shutout of the season.

The backline revelation has been Steven Beitashour, who has four assists on the young season. In fact, the right back has eight assists in his past 18 starts dating back to last season when he first cemented himself as the starter.

Much like the season's other hot-starting team, Sporting KC, the Earthquakes are playing a style that may not be everyone's cup of tea. But the effectiveness simply can't be denied.

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