When the San Jose Earthquakes returned home from New Jersey after getting dissected by the Red Bulls to the tune of a 3-0 defeat, head coach Frank Yallop decided he needed to get the entire team together for a meeting to access the loss and identify what the next steps should be. While the details of the meeting remain secret — neither coach Yallop nor the players elaborated when questioned during media interviews earlier this week — the result has been an increased intensity in team training sessions leading up to tomorrow’s MLS clash with Chivas USA.
In addition to the increased intensity of training, some potential shuffling of the Earthquakes starting XI looks in order this weekend. Utilizing a number of different line-ups during the week, coach Yallop looks set to abandon the experiment of putting defender Jason Hernandez, a natural center back, out on the right wing. Often victimized in a home draw with Toronto FC and in the 3-0 whitewashing at Red Bull Arena, Hernandez saw equal time this week at center back alongside partner Brandon McDonald. Second year defender Ike Opara was often the odd-man out in the training rotation, suggesting that a new starting back four will feature against Chivas USA.
Another player subject to a starting line-up shakeup is forward Ryan Johnson. In an effort to keep the 2009 Earthquakes MVP on the field, coach Yallop has dropped him to left midfielder, moving Bobby Convey over to his less preferred side on the right. While their placement in the formation can rotate over the course of the match — Convey will drift to the left and Johnson often fins himself more central — the overall effort has not been productive when it comes to putting shots on target. Moving Convey to the right was in part an effort to help Hernandez shore up the defensive flank; however, that effect was minimal, as it seemed more like Convey’s placement was akin to pounding a square peg into a round hole.
Veteran forward Scott Sealy, back to full health after suffering a shoulder injury late in the home draw with Seattle, has looked sharp in training this week and could spell Johnson at forward or in midfield. The Trinidadian striker had a promising end to the 2010 season, but has been limited by injuries for all of 2011. Just now getting back to speed, Sealy deserves a chance to show coach Yallop he is able to be the Quakes scoring threat they need to pair with 2010 Golden Boot winner Chris Wondolowski.
Another striker option for coach Yallop comes in the form of draft day acquisition Steven Lenhart, who is healthy from knee surgery and back in San Jose following the untimely death of his father in later March. Lenhart is unlikely to start for the Quakes so soon after reintegrating himself into training, but is very likely to feature as a substitute if the Quakes have difficulty scoring goals against Chivas USA. If Lenhart does not play in the regular match against the Goats, coach Yallop indicated he’ll feature for the reserves in a Reserve League match scheduled for latter the same afternoon.
The last bit of line-up shuffling that might be on display at Buck Shaw Stadium Saturday afternoon comes at the right midfielder position. Convey, should he switch back to the left side, leaves open the right for Wondolowski to drop back from the lone-forward position he has started in the last two games. Another option, and one coach Yallop experimented with times at training this week, is to slide central midfielder Khari Stephenson to the right instead, opening up space in the middle for Wondo to operate. Stephenson may not have the speed of a traditional winger, but his physical attributes and technical calmness on the ball could prove effective in initiating attacks into the tracking third from the right side — something that has been lacking the past two weeks. With capable defender Chris Leitch in contention to start at right back, any defensive qualities missing from the tall Jamaican will not prove to be too much of a liability.
Will there be some changes to the line-up this weekend against Chivas USA? Given that coach Yallop rarely keeps the same starting XI when results are lacking, the answer seems to be a resounding yes. The official line-ups won’t be announced until an hour before kick-off, but some of the changes outlined above seem highly likely to take place.