By Ridge Mahoney
The trade this week of Alan Gordon, one-half of the beloved “Bash Brothers,” is being portrayed as one more sign a New Age is dawning in San Jose.
No more will the Quakes rely on high balls pumped into the air for Gordon and Steven Lenhart to bang on frame or knock into areas where prowls the quick and crafty Chris Wondolowski. Recently signed Designated Player Matias Perez Garcia will be the orchestrator of a more fluid, technical approach not nearly so prone to predictability.
It sounds good in theory though there are questions as to how well the current roster can adapt. Such a makeover normally takes time and more roster moves than San Jose has been able to implement, and so radically changing the team’s identity must be accomplished with most of the same players grounded in a different philosophy.
Since taking over from head coach Frank Yallop in early June of last year, Mark Watson had ramped up the intensity but meddled little with the concept by which San Jose had won the Supporters’ Shield and scored an astonishing 72 goals in 2012, 13 more than any other team. Wondo tied the league record with 27 goals, Lenhart and Gordon combined for 23, and a run to the title game looked possible. At times Yallop used Wondo as a wide mid to deploy Lenhart and Gordon as twin towers of power.
Instead, a conference semifinal exit at the hands of the more accomplished and experienced Galaxy, which went on to capture a second consecutive title, deflated the team. Beset by injuries and flat performances, it started poorly in 2013, and Yallop departed after team management backed general manager John Doyle in disputes over roster selection and team preparations.
Under Watson, the Quakes went 11-5-3 and lost a playoff spot only on a the second tiebreaker, goals scored, with fifth-place Colorado. Whatever momentum that strong finish generated hasn’t resurfaced often in 2014. The roster hadn’t changed much but a few injuries and the lackluster form of several prominent players impaired the team’s efforts to get on a roll. World Cup duty for Wondolowski and Honduran defender Victor Bernardez didn't aid the process.
San Jose lost a tough Concacaf Champions League quarterfinal on penalty kicks in March against Toluca, which fell in the final to Mexican rival Cruz Azul on the away-goals rule. That could have been the springboard to a strong start, instead, the Quakes have sputtered to get into a rhythm.
A shocking three-game losing streak at home was snapped by a 5-1 thrashing of Chicago (coached by Yallop) in July 23 that both Lenhart and Gordon sat out. Five different players scored and Portuguese loanee Yannick Djalo also chalked up three assists in a spectacular display.
The thrilling touches and dribbles of Djalo remind fans of another loanee, Simon Dawkins, who scored eight goals in 2012 while often slashing through the space left in the wake of Gordon and Lenhart. Dawkins was recalled by Tottenham and it has taken Quakes management a year and a half to find a player as quick and polished on the dribble yet also capable of combination play. Djalo and Wondo are finding the ways and means to play off each other, and thus present opponents an utterly different set of problems than did Lenhart and Gordon.
Ironies abound in the team’s timing of this makeover. Former Quakes midfielders Rafael Baca and Marvin Chavez would relish a more skillful, creative style. Baca faded in 2013 after a strong showing in 2012 and departed for Mexico; Chavez was traded to Colorado and has since moved on to Chivas USA. Chavez led the team with 13 assists in 2012 but like many Quakes struggled for consistency last year.
Some of the team’s offensive troubles this season can be traced to the offseason departure of right back Steven Beitashour, whose corner kicks and serves from the right side were voraciously fed upon by the Bashers and Wondolowksi. He logged six assists in 2012 and three last year. The club also misses the vision of Ramiro Corrales, whose quality service from the left side earned him seven assists in 2012.
One current player who can benefit from a change is midfielder Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi, a Corsican-born midfielder signed in January and gradually coming to grips with the rigors of MLS after eight seasons in France. His partnership with Sam Cronin is improving, though Watson has also deployed the burly Khari Stephenson to add MLS experience as well as strength (6-foot-1, 185 pounds). Lenhart is rehabbing after knee surgery and will be back in the mix, either as a sub or starter, in September.
So the Quakes aren’t going cold-turkey just yet. While the baseline may be trending toward possession and combination play, as was evidenced in a 1-0 defeat of Seattle Aug. 2, if ugly play and bludgeoned goals generate results, so be it. And San Jose’s persona as a counterattacking team persists; sharp finishes off the break by Wondolowski and Perez Garcia, on his debut, produced the goals in a 2-2 road tie with the Galaxy last weekend.
Still, as has often been the case for the past few years, the Quakes relied on some spectacular goalkeeping by Jon Busch against both the Sounders and Galaxy. They need greater stability in front of their heroic goalie to be a legit playoff team. Bernardez retired from his national team after the World Cup. With him fresher and more focused, the centerback slots could be set for the next few years, assuming U.S. international Clarence Goodson -- out for two months with a toe injury -- recovers successfully.
One of the most important byproducts of possession play is it keeps the ball away from the opposition, and even in their playoff seasons (2010 and 2012) the Quakes were prone to occasional lapses of turnovers and desperate defending and fervent hope Busch -- or predecessor Joe Cannon -- would bail them out. If they miss the postseason again this year, they will have qualified just twice in seven seasons since MLS brought the team back in 2008.
A new stadium is nearing completion. The Quakes have played home games in four facilities (counting a friendly with Atletico Madrid) this season and in league play are 5-4-3 at “home." They have 14 games remaining, more than any team except the Galaxy, but nine of them are on the road, and their away mark of 1-4-3 is one of the league’s worst. Are the Quakes good enough and versatile enough to shift from style to style depending on venue and opponent? Or can this new persona prevail, week after week, home and away?