The supporters are restless in San Jose, as the Earthquakes winless streak stretched to nine games following the 2-0 loss to DC United. For the seventh time over that stretch, the Quakes failed to find the back of the net, including a game finishing 20 minutes where they enjoyed a one man advantage following Andy Najar’s ejection. Perhaps seeing ex-Quake Brandon McDonald leading the visitor’s defense to the clean sheet did not help matters either. Never more than in the waning weeks of the 2009 season, have the calls for head coach Frank Yallop to be fired percolated so close to the level of public consciousness.
The struggles of the Earthquakes cannot be blamed solely on the coach, but must also be shared by the players as well. So while, Yallop and general manager John Doyle were in a state of the franchise meeting with the front office and ownership, the players went through a comprehensive training session under the watch of the assistant coaching staff as they begin preparations for the Portland Timbers this Saturday evening at Buck Shaw Stadium.
Focusing on drills to bring back in suspended and injured former-starters into the first team, coaches had the players participating in a modified scrimmage that saw the top front line taking on the top defensive side. With emergency starter Nana Attakora sitting out training and Ramiro Corrales sliding out to the left side, the central defending pair of Bobby Burling and Jason Hernandez again ruled the back four in front of Jon Busch. Both defenders looked rejuvenated after having the weekend off, and Burling revealed after training that he is looking forward to stepping back onto the field this Saturday.
“We had a lot of games in July,” said Burling “It was a tough month not finding a win. Jason and I were a little banged up, but that comes with the job description. Anytime you have to watch your team lose, it’s more motivating for sure. We’re struggling to find wins, but if we can put a couple together we’ll move right back up the table.”
Burling reiterated that the Quakes should still be considered a playoff caliber team, but that they needed to prove that to themselves and the fans in the next two weekends at Buck Shaw Stadium. With seven of their last ten matches on the road, starting off the month of August on the right foot is imperative.
With goal scoring being a big issue for the club over the last couple months, it was perhaps a bad sign to see both Steven Lenhart (personal leave) and Alan Gordon (injury) absent from training. While not at his best last Saturday, Gordon pressed through injury to try and provide a target forward for Yallop’s side. He had only the benefit of two training sessions ahead of that assignment, and at times looked confused on where to be during the match. His striking partner Scott Sealy made it through the weekend unscathed and played alongside Chris Wondolowski in practice. Also seeing time in training was forward Matt Luzunaris, who despite reports to the contrary, did not return to Orlando City SC on loan following the DC United match. Luzunaris, who played a very energetic 24 minutes against the Black-and-Red is expected to stay in San Jose and be available for squad selection this weekend against the Timbers.
One player that might be called upon to aid the Quakes ailing offense is Bobby Convey. When discussing the opportunities he might gain to play left back with the U.S. Men’s National Team under the leadership of new head coach Jürgen Klinsmann, Convey shared his two cents on what he feels needs to be done right here in San Jose.
“I started there in the All-Star game, but for me here I think…,” Convey paused for a second. “For me here, we obviously haven’t scored in a while, so it would be great to play in the midfield and get forward to try to create goals and help the team win games. But, either position is good. If we maintain possession then it is not all defending at left back. That’s a big thing to be able to get your backs forward when you keep possession of the ball.”
That lack of shape in the back was very evident at times against DC United, especially in the pairing of Convey and Wondolowski on the left side. On a number of occasions, Wondo drifted centrally until he was stationed almost as a third forward — he might be better utilized playing forward from the start — leaving vast spaces on the left wing for Convey to cover in defense, effectively limiting his opportunities to push into the attack. However, the Philadelphia native — who looks likely to miss out on a call up to the U.S. national team when they face Mexico in his hometown next week — still believes the Earthquakes can make the postseason with the team they have.
“Considering what we did last year, when we had a lull in the middle of the season with a bunch of injuries,” said Convey earnestly, “it was about now when we starting winning, which is what we need to do this year. I think everyone needs to take it upon themselves to play to the best of their ability. We need to score goals, plain and simple. Recently we have not been very creative. You can’t always defend, defend, defend, because the other team will find chances to score. Collectively we need to get better and be more cutthroat when it comes to wanting to score goals and finish our opportunities.”
Another player that should help improve the Quakes fortunes is Brad Ring, who will be available to play this weekend following a one-game suspension for caution accumulation. As the enforcer midfielder in front of the back-four, Ring has been very effective in stalling opponents’ attacks with his determined play. Any relief he can provide to the back four should allow for more attack play from the outside backs, as they do not need to fear additional exposure of the central defense. The partnership of Sam Cronin and Khari Stephenson struggled against DC United, and was a big part of why Dwayne De Rosario was able to infiltrate the defense for the game’s only goals. When the Quakes get a solid game from their defensive midfielder, and the back four have the space and confidence to press their opponents further up the field, better chances develop for the offense. That strategy worked very well for the Quakes down the stretch in 2010, and will need to be revisited if the team is to catapult themselves back into postseason consideration.
Elsewhere around the training ground, Rafael Baca was back in the thick of the scrimmage after spending much of last week working on other drills. After a forgettable performance against Real Salt Lake, where the rookie looked every bit the first-year player that he is, Baca needs to continue his development with his teammates in order to help him be more prepared for his next playing opportunity. He played primarily on the right side during the intrasquad scrimmage, alongside second year back Steven Beitashour. Looking much sharper following his return from an ankle injury Beita, is gradually returning to full fitness and may challenge Tim Ward for playing time in the next few weeks.
As practice was drawing to an end, general manager John Doyle stopped by the Nutrilite Training Facility to check in on the proceedings. With less than two weeks remaining in the MLS summer transfer window, Doyle shared some thoughts on whether the Earthquakes were still actively looking for players to add to the roster. His first answer to that subject was rather neutral.
“I would say it is possible,” Doyle explained. “We were in a better position last year when we he got here than this year. We have a good base of players, but have suffered some injuries. Getting these guys healthy and looking to see if we can do something — that is what we are doing.”
He followed up with the acknowledgement that some players may not be able to help in time to reverse the team’s summer-long struggles, and that reinforcements may be necessary to fill out the roster.
“With Ike Opara being out, with Steven Lenhart gone right now, I think ownership realizes that we need some help right now.”
Doyle clarified that he did not think that center back and forward were the only positions under consideration for an upgrade. In fact, he went on to say that every place on the field could do with more competition — with the exception of goalkeeper — and that he wanted to keep his options open when it came to making personnel moves over the next twelve days. Doyle leaves for Brazil this week to talk with partner club Internacional about that relationship, so perhaps something is still in the offering when it comes to a new player signing. The Quakes GM did acknowledge the boost that a big signing can have on the rest of the players and the organization as a whole, as evident by last summer’s signing of Brazilian playmaker Geovanni in mid August.
“I think Geovanni coming in last year lifted everybody,” said Doyle. “It lifted the whole team. Did he perform at the level we thought he would, no. Did he perform well and lift the other players, yes. Can you find the right player or do you waste the money — that is the thing.”
Geovanni was released following the conclusion of the 2010 season, in part because of the hefty wage bill he was due, but also because he statistically did not help the team. However, the Brazilian did make the team better, and their confidence grew as the summer turned to fall and the postseason arrived. The signing of Geovanni was an assurance to the players and supporters that ownership was committed to pushing the team forward. While the team is struggling this year compared to the pace set by the 2010 squad entering the month of August, and increased MLS playoff field and the fact that the Earthquakes are only 3 points off a playoff berth, another commitment by ownership along the lines of the Geovanni signing could provide just the lift the team desperately needs.