By Ridge Mahoney
A season of regular-season thrills and playoff disappointment leaves the Quakes in a strange position heading into 2013.
The league’s best team over 34 games isn’t regarded as any better than any other challenger to the Galaxy. Are the Quakes’ late-game heroics regarded as too fluky? Did the home playoff loss to the Galaxy irreparably scar their Supporters’ Shield as the best regular-season team? Does the failure of Chris Wondolowski to score for the national taint his record-tying season of 27 goals? Is playing on a converted college baseball field too tacky to forgive?
An astonishing mark of 22 goals scored after the 75th minute, including 10 in stoppage time, confirmed the determination and resilience of the team assembled by head coach Frank Yallop and general manager John Doyle. They rescued four wins and six ties after conceding the first goal in 16 games, and were 3-3-4 after trailing at halftime. Both marks were league bests.
Most of the components, which complement each other snugly, are back. Bash Brothers Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart, who scored a combined 23 goals, pound the opposition while wide mids Marvin Chavez (his 13 assists tied for third-best in MLS) and Shea Salinas stretch it out of shape. Central mids Rafael Baca and Sam Cronin plug the middle and slip balls into good spots, and occasionally right back Steven Beitashour will get up the flank to hit a dangerous cross.
Unlike the 2010 Quakes that reached the conference finals, they utilize the big men and hit long balls but aren’t dependent on them. Bernardez, Chavez, Baca, and Wondo give the team good feet in many parts of the field and on their day they can zip the ball around. Fans need only endure one more season of cramped concession stands and Port-A-Potties at funky Buck Shaw Stadium. More than 6,000 fans showed up in October for a ceremonial ground-breaking on the site of a new stadium near San Jose Intnernational Airport, and construction officially begins this week on a facility that will seat about 18,000 and cost approximately $60 million.
KEY PLAYER MOVES. Of the six offseason signings, five are defenders. Dan Gargan, Ty Harden and Bryan Jordan were all picked up in the Re-Entry Draft and bring a total of 253 MLS games onto the Quakes’ roster. Nana Attakora, who left the club to play in Finland after six appearances at the end of the 2011 season, came back last week. Former Timber forward Mike Fucito arrived in a trade and scored against his ex-team in a preseason game at JELD-WEN Field.
The team finally gave up on Ike Opara; the no. 3 pick in the 2010 SuperDraft struggled to sharpen his game after suffering a broken foot as a rookie, and was traded to Sporting Kansas City. San Jose declined the option on Khari Stephenson, whose robust midfield play brought yet another physical element to the attack. Otherwise, the cast is back.
WHY BE OPTIMISTIC? The Quakes lost only once at home and were by far the best team on the road with a 9-5-3 record. Wondolowski was named MVP, and he, Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour were named to the MLS All-Star Team. Defender Victor Bernardez was a finalist for both Defender of the Year and Newcomer of the Year, and along with Wondo was named to the Best XI. There are good players at every position.
WHY BE PESSIMISTIC? Teams need to come back because they fall behind, and they fall behind because they consistently concede goals. Whether by lack of concentration or porous positioning, San Jose struggled to contain teams and with those deficits set the stage for late-game heroics. Chavez and Bernardez will be busy, and perhaps burned out, by playing for Honduras.
WHY WATCH THIS TEAM? The Quakes won the league scoring title by a mile; their 72 goals were 13 more than the No. 2 Galaxy. Wondolowski is a scoring marvel – 61 goals in the last three seasons -- yet his prowess is a study in movement and anticipation rather than brawn or speed. Gordon and Lenhart supply the power, Salinas and Chavez bring the pace. Bernardez is the type of tough, skilled defender one expects to see on European or South American teams.
MLS PREVIEW SERIES:
Eastern Conference: Columbus | D.C. United | Houston | Montreal | New England | New York | Philadelphia | Toronto FC
Western Conference: Chivas USA | Colorado | FC Dallas | Portland | Real Salt Lake | Seattle | Vancouver