Are the San Jose Earthquakes making the grade? A look at expectations at the MLS season halfway point
Just days before MLS first kick in San Jose on March 19, I wrote about what should be expected from the Earthquakes in the 2011 season. A very promising preseason and the inclusion of some fresh faces made it clear that the team was aiming to return to the playoffs, where they hoped to take care of unfinished business and make a run at the MLS Cup. It has been eight years since the Quakes brought home the trophy, and ten years since their inaugural championship. Getting so close in 2010 only served to provide motivation to players and coaches that 2011 would be their year.
A bumpy start to the season was quickly erased by a successful spring for San Jose that included a six-game unbeaten streak and a scoring binge that had them near the top of the league in goals per game. Juggling injuries and national team absences, head coach Frank Yallop leaned on his deep squad to field almost as many different starting line-ups as games played through this week (14 starting combinations in 18 league games). With the Earthquakes moving past the midpoint of the season following their match against the Philadelphia Union, the time seems right to check in on my predictions and expectations for the team.
Fortress Buck Shaw 2.0 — After playing nine home games at Buck Shaw Stadium so far in the 2011 season, the Earthquakes have a 3-2-4 record. Not too shabby, given that it took until the fifth home game to register their first win — and for fans to receive Win Pin 1.0. Including the point claimed at Stanford University against the Red Bulls, the team has earned 17 points from a total of 30 available. While not on pace to hit the 35 home points goal outlined in the season predictions, San Jose need only continue their current home form to reach that number by the end of October. Coming out of the match this past weekend against the Philadelphia Union, the Quakes are unbeaten in their last five matches on the campus of Santa Clara University. With results like that, the summer of soccer for Quakes fans will entail many a trip to Fortress Buck Shaw. All that is left to do is turn those defensive masterpieces into wins.
It’s a Wondo-ful World — Halfway into the season, Chris Wondolowski leads the Quakes in scoring with six goals. In fact, so strong was his start to the MLS season that U.S. Men’s National Team head coach Bob Bradley selected Wondo to the 23-man roster for the Gold Cup. His teammates picked up the slack while the MLS Golden Boot holder was with the Nats, most notably Steven Lenhart and Simon Dawkins found the back of the net multiple times during a four game stretch that featured a Wondo-less line-up. Back with the squad, Wondolowski is still searching for lucky goal number seven, but his scoring rate per game should have him finish the season comfortably above the 12 goal threshold I set back before the season began. At times during the 2010 season, Wondo scored goals in bunches, so look out opposing goalkeepers when he finally gets off the schnide.
Defense Quakes, Defense! — Amid a lot of shuffling of players in and out of the starting back four for the Earthquakes, some significant challenges to the team’s defensive cohesiveness have been evident. As a result, San Jose has digressed slightly from their 2010 form, with their goals against average rising from 1.10 to 1.17 this season. The league-wide average is currently 1.21 which is lower than the 1.23 average posted on average in 2010, which indicates the Earthquakes are doing just enough defensively to keep ahead of the pace set by the rest of their MLS opponents. If the Quakes continue the defensive effort they have displayed over their last five matches — where they are actually without a win, but the defense is keeping the team competitive — they will finally break the 1.10 threshold by season’s end. Getting below the one goal per game average I set in my preseason expectations seems unlikely at this point, especially with 9 of their remaining 16 games on the road, but lowering their current number closer to last season’s effort will likely lead to a significant haul of points in the MLS standings over the second half of 2011.
Hey Now, You’re an All-Star… — With fan voting completed in the competition to represent MLS in the All-Star game this summer against Manchester United, just one Earthquake was in the running to make that select group of eleven players. To the surprise of no one outside of the Bay Area, Chris Wondolowski sat atop the leader board for strikers in the waning hours of fan balloting. By Sunday afternoon, the reigning MLS Golden Boot winner received the news that he was elected, highlighting that fan sentiment across the country and around the world has broad support for his goal scoring prowess. With the remainder of the roster chosen by All-Star head coach Hans Backe and MLS commissioner Don Garber, Wondo is likely to be the only Earthquakes player at Red Bull Arena on July 27. Without another breakout star on the squad, and with last year’s team representative Bobby Convey suffering from injury, Wondo will be all San Jose has to support in soccer’s own Summer Classic.
Playoffs? Playoffs? — When the league expanded the number of playoff teams from ten to twelve at the beginning of the 2011 season, the odds of making the postseason increased slightly from 50% to 56%. While the top three teams in each conference are automatically entered into the MLS Cup tournament, the next four teams in the standings regardless of conference affiliation qualify as “wild card” entrants. Taking into account games played by the 18 teams in MLS and looking at their points per game average to date, the Earthquakes currently would qualify for the last postseason berth courtesy of the goal-differential tiebreaker against Sporting Kansas City. A logjam is developing in the table for those 6-10 playoff places, so any team in the group that can string together some wins will quickly outdistance the competition. Going on a run through the summer and into the latter stages of the regular season where the team returns to their 1.5 points per game average seen just a month prior would be enough to give the Quakes their second bite of the playoffs cherry in as many seasons.
(Photo: Kelley L. Cox, isiphotos.com, centerlinesoccer.com)