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San Jose Earthquakes training report: preparing to meet the Chicago Fire in the “Win and You’re In” U.S. Open Cup qualifier

While most of the attention around training on Monday was focused on Chris Wondolowski, the rest of his teammates were also keeping busy with preparations ahead of tonight’s U.S. Open Cup qualifier. Head coach Frank Yallop had his charges playing a short-field 11 v. 11 scrimmage for much of the early going at training, before breaking the players off into two groups to work on set pieces and finishing drills. King of the big left foot Ellis McLoughlin was the star attraction, as he struck a pair of unsaveable balls that were fortunate not to rip through the netting. Wondolowski also showed off the form that has him traveling to North Carolina later this weekend to join the U.S. Men’s National Team.

Encouraging signs on the injury front were found on the day as Tim Ward played for part of the scrimmage and Simon Dawkins completed laps around the facility. Ward looked rusty on the ball at times, but certainly not when it came to getting up and down the abbreviated field. Dawkins, sporting just a handle of butterfly bandages over his surgical incisions, jogged and ran for a solid 30 minutes under the watchful eye of head trainer Bruce Morgan. Not looking the least out of breath each time he passed the assembled media, Dawkins flashed a big smile and give an affirmative sign when asked how he was feeling. Yallop suggested in comments after training that Dawkins could rejoin the team for full training in as little as two more weeks.

Unsigned MLS Supplemental Draft pick Victor Cortez was back in training camp Monday, and looked very eager to mesh with his potential teammates. With his father watching attentively from just outside the facility, Cortez scored the highlight goal of the shooting exercise with an upper 90 blast that Jon Busch could only wave goodbye. The USF product completed his spring semester last week — and participated in his graduation ceremony on Sunday — so he should get more opportunity to train with the full team. General manager John Doyle made no comment on whether the young midfielder would be signed by the team in the near future, but could not rule out that possibility either.

As training wound down, and many of the players broke off into small groups for stretching and kick-arounds the potential starting XI for Tuesday’s USOC qualifier became clearer. While Yallop does not often confirm his starters and bench until immediately before kick off, some clues suggested what the gaffer might trot out on the Buck Shaw pitch Tuesday evening at 7:30 p.m.

First off, defender Brandon McDonald will be available after serving a one-match suspension over the weekend for a red card offense. He looks probable to return to action in partnership with Bobby Burling in the center of defense, although Ike Opara could start instead with Burling in the same duo that played the full 120 minutes at Portland in U.S. Open Cup qualifying earlier this month. Looking back to that game for more clues, Steven Beitashour and either Justin Morrow or Ramiro Corrales look like best bets to complete the back four.

The midfield is where things get interesting for the Quakes. Second-year player Brad Ring has started each of the last five games, and the team has responded with five solid efforts. While Ring is due a break, I won’t be surprised if he will make it six starts in a row on Tuesday. Early season starter Sam Cronin, who was rested over the weekend most likely will be his central partner. The two outside midfielders are less certain, with last Saturday’s substitutes in the New England Revolution match Anthony Ampaipitakwong and Ellis McLoughlin part of a group of potential starters that includes Justin Morrow, Bobby Convey, Scott Sealy, and Joey Gjertsen. Convey and Gjertsen are outside choices, so two of the remaining four candidates will face the Fire on Tuesday.

Starting up top will definitely be the team’s leader scorer Chris Wondolowski. Having played every minute of every Earthquakes match this season — before the McDonald red card against the Crew forced him off the field for tactical considerations late in the Columbus Crew victory — Wondo is tireless in his pursuit of winning. Made the team captain over Corrales and Jason Hernandez three weeks ago, the 2010 MLS Golden Boot winner prides himself on his conditioning and intensity, no matter the opponent or the competition. A bigger question is who his striking partner will be on Tuesday. Steven Lenhart looks to be the favorite to start, but he is due a rest given the abuse he takes in his role as a target forward. Rookie Matt Luzunaris has made a pair of substitute’s appearances so far in 2011 and is due for more playing time. If McLoughlin is not selected to reprise his midfield role from last Saturday, he could also join Wondo up top.

One player that certainly won’t be available on Tuesday is left midfielder/forward Ryan Johnson, who is already bound for the Jamaican National Team Gold Cup preparation camp in Brazil. Johnson will not be joined on the Reggae Boyz by his Jamaican teammate Khari Stephenson, as the tall central midfielder did not stick with the team after an audition earlier this year.