Week one without Wondo was worrisome what with Lenhart looking listless leading the offensive efforts. Head coach Frank Yallop had been auditioning potential forwards to pair with his target forward in a pair of U.S. Open Cup qualifying games last month, but an heir apparent to pair with the hair fantastic had not emerged. Veteran Scott Sealy seemed to have the inside track, but the Trinidadian has been battling injuries all season. Rookie Ellis McLoughlin made a strong case with a pair of quality goals over the last fortnight, but his inexperience calls out for more seasoning both in training and in less pressure filled match situations. The imminent return of dynamic playmaker Simon Dawkins signaled his dark horse candidacy for the opportunity to start up top along side Lenhart, but the Englishman’s skills see him suited more to playing as an attacking midfielder.
No, to the surprise of the small collection of media in attendance at Earthquakes training the last two days, the player who appears ready to step into Wondolowski’s shoes is none other than Khari Stephenson. The tall Jamaican is the team’s second leading scorer this season, so he is no stranger to getting goals, but his shots have come from distance and not from inside the area. He can be a physical presence on set pieces, but it remains to be seen if he can duplicate Wondo’s ability moving off the ball to get into quality scoring positions. And much like Dawkins, Stephenson’s strength is his ability to distribute and move the ball in the midfield, which suggests that what coach Yallop is actually setting up for Saturday’s match with the Houston Dynamo is more of a possession style formation.
Instead of the classic 4-4-2 formation that the Earthquakes have trotted out the past month — a month where they went unbeaten in all competitions, save a penalty kick shootout to the Chicago Fire in U.S. Open Cup qualifying — starting Stephenson signals a subtle shift in the line-up to a 4-2-3-1. With Brad Ring and Sam Cronin positioned primarily as defensive midfielders in front of the Quakes defensive back four, the Jamaican resides at the top of that pairing, withdrawn from the striker Lenhart. Ramiro Corrales and surprise starter Anthony Ampaipitakwong fill the winger roles in the three-across midfield line, with Bobby Convey and Steven Beitashour providing overlapping runs down the flank.
Against a Houston team that like to flood the midfield, the shift in tactics by the Earthquakes gives them equal footing down the center of the pitch. Lenhart will unfortunately be left on an island at times as the lone striker, but the Ring and Cronin duo should provide enough balance to distribute the ball from wing to wing and exploit passing lanes at the top edges of the area in the attacking third. Stephenson’s role will be to link with Lenhart moving forward as well as in a support role to collect long balls tracked down by the target man. Creating scoring opportunities in this formation fall to the feet of the wingers Corrales and Ampaipitakwong — something they did with aplomb in last weekend’s 2-2 draw at Chicago.
When the Earthquakes want to shift into a more offensive minded formation, two key contributors will be available for coach Yallop on the bench. McLoughlin, while not earning the start against the Dynamo, is positioned to come in for either Corrales or Stephenson, in essence shifting the formation into the more familiar 4-4-2. Dawkins is also slated to get 20-30 minutes on Saturday in his first action since being sidelined due to surgery on both his calves a short month ago. The Tottenham loanee seems a good bet to replace Stephenson as the attacking midfielder or one of Ring or Cronin in a shift away from the two defensive midfielder formation. Ampaipitakwong on the right wing is also susceptible to being substituted, with McLoughlin also a candidate to play on the right, or Stephenson shifting to that role if not replaced himself.
The Earthquakes have spent the week adjusting to the absence of Wondolowski, and versatile forward/midfielder Ryan Johnson as well, while trying to minimize the disruption to their current tactical strategy. How successful that tinkering has been will be on full display Saturday evening at a Buck Shaw Stadium forecasted to be wet and windy. The team is obviously much more than Wondo, and the rest of the team will be out to prove that against the Dynamo.