The San Jose Earthquakes are struggling mightily this summer — a team that was one goal away from reaching the 2010 MLS Cup Final has just the faintest of chances to qualify for the playoffs this season. After their 2-0 loss to the Los Angeles Galaxy last Saturday evening at the Home Depot Center, the Earthquakes are now winless in their last 12 MLS regular season matches. An even dozen games where the Quakes have earned just 6 points from as many draws, and a run that has seen the team drop from top of the league is goals scored per game down to a tie for 15th with the expansion Vancouver Whitecaps FC.
The reasons for San Jose’s precipitous decline are well understood — injuries, suspensions, leaves of absence, faulty trades, and national team assignments have together prevented head coach Frank Yallop from fielding a consistent starting XI from week to week — but are not unique among MLS teams to only the Earthquakes. However, they have shed light on the biggest issue the team faces this season, and for season to come if the strategy doesn’t change — the Earthquakes roster construction will at best result in a mid-table team over the long-haul of a full MLS season. Quite simply, ownership and the front office seem content to keep to a limited player budget where success relies on a combination of fortune as much as performance.
San Jose has been following this pattern since their return to the league in 2008. They field a mixture of solid, but not spectacular, MLS-proven players along with a couple of projects with potential. Occasionally as a group they make things work and the game looks natural and effective; however, too often a sub-par performance from just one or two of the players in the line-up derails the whole effort and the Earthquakes strain to avoid uninspiring losses.
Some moves have looked great — bringing in Darren Huckerby and Francisco Lima in the summer of 2008, plucking Jon Busch off the trash heap prior to the 2010 campaign, and signing Brazilian attacking midfield Geovanni in the later stages of the 2010 playoff chase — and the team responded with some promise. Sometimes the moves took awhile to come to fruition, like last season when the Earthquakes caught lightning in a bottle as unheralded forward Chris Wondolowski surprised the entire league with an MLS Golden Boot performance and a healthy and motivated Bobby Convey led the team in assists — both players came to the team the season before, but had done little to distinguish themselves until 2010.
But the margin for error with roster development has been slim for the Earthquakes, with a push from ownership to be anything but a small-market side with smaller-market ambitions ruling the operation and leaving the franchise stagnant at a time where MLS is reaching very higher levels in the sporting public’s consciousness. At the end of the 2008 season, the expansion San Jose Earthquakes and the David Beckham branded Los Angeles Galaxy finished tied for last in the overall MLS standings. Two-and-a-half seasons later, when those same teams met in the 48th edition of the California Clasico, the states of the franchises could not be any different.
A comment echoed around the Earthquakes camp over the summer has been that the team might be struggling, but the financial wherewithal to improve the situation was not forthcoming. As more and more MLS teams signed Designated Player contracts with both young and old international players, the Quakes technical team stated that they would only join the DP fray if just the right player came along. The loan signing of Tottenham Hotspurs midfielder Simon Dawkins was the most likely blueprint for how San Jose planned to bring in further impact players. Splashing big money around on transfer fees and hefty multi-year contracts was not in their plans.
As the Earthquakes summer winless streak edged into double-digits, the team finally announced that they were bringing in a new attack-minded player. The initially anonymous player was known to ply his trade in South America, but the warning came that he was not a household name to most fans of the game. General manager John Doyle had just returned from a visit to Brazil, so assumptions began that the Quakes newest player would feature from that country.
Meanwhile, down in Southern California the rumors were swirling that Ireland international team captain Robbie Keane was set to join the Los Angeles Galaxy — the same Robbie Keane that as part of the San Jose Earthquakes partner club Tottenham Hotspurs roster prior to last season, played against the Quakes in a friendly last July. With Spurs in San Jose for a week of preseason training back in the summer of 2010, Keane was asked repeatedly about the potential for him to jump to MLS following a successful spell in the EPL. Given the ties between Tottenham and San Jose, many supporters believed that the Earthquakes would be on the inside track to sign the talented forward when he eventually made the move to play in America. To all who were familiar with his play, San Jose seemed a perfect fit for the prolific goal scorer and a player that could garner attention among the local soccer community. When the deal to bring Keane to Los Angeles was announced, many local supporters felt cheated of the opportunity to see the Irish international in Quakes Blue-and-Black.
While the Galaxy faithful fawned over the coming of Robbie Keane to Los Angeles — paparazzi at the airport for his arrival from England, a standing-room-only press conference to welcome him to the Home Depot Center, and a sold-out stadium ready to witness his debut in a Galaxy uniform — Earthquakes fans finally learned the identity of their big summer signing, Ecuadoran international forward Edmundo Zura. Racing to their computers and smart phones to learn more about Zura, the reaction to the news was underwhelming. The 28-year old striker had gone relatively unnoticed outside of his home country, and seemed known more for an infamous stint as a "marquee player" in the Australian A-league two seasons ago. Zura had a mere fraction of the pedigree that Keane brought to LA.
The game last Satuday between the Galaxy and the Earthquakes was billed as the Robbie Keane show in MLS promotions, and the Ireland captain did not disappoint. A constant threat to the Quakes defense from the opening whistle, Keane finally broke the deadlock after converting a grand opportunity set up by the midfield maestro of the Galaxy, David Beckham. Sneaking behind Jason Hernandez before collecting the long pass and rounding goalkeeper Jon Busch, Keane celebrated with flair in front of a packed Home Depot Center crowd of 27,000 adoring fans. He had missed his chances to score earlier in the game, but made it look easy to put the Galaxy up 1-0 over their in-state rivals.
The Earthquakes didn’t back down following the Keane goal, and they valiantly tilted the possession advantage to their favor. However, their offensive struggles continued, and their summer signing Zura was settled on the bench as a spectator. The newest Earthquakes player finally made his debut late in the game as a substitute for Chris Wondolowski, but he put in a very anonymous 20 minute performance. A small sampling size of playing time to be sure, but rather discouraging in comparison to the impact Keane had for the Galaxy after just a single training session with his new teammates.
The match finished on a low note for the Earthquakes, as defender Steven Beitashour was ejected from the game for an apparent stamp on Landon Donovan after the two tangled up on a tough tackle. Beitashour had just minutes before been the victim of a rough play from Donovan, so his action seemed construed as retaliation and the referee did not hesitate to go to his back pocket to unveil the straight red card. Down a man, the Earthquakes conceded a late goal to nemesis Mike Magee, and soon thereafter left the Home Depot Center field 2-0 losers.
Just two-and-a-half years following the completion of their expansion season, and the Earthquakes looked second-class to their California Clasico rivals. One organization has stepped up and promised to be the best team in the league, while the other seems caught in a holding pattern waiting for fortune to smile upon them. With Robbie Keane aboard and a commitment to spending whatever money it takes, Los Angeles looks set to capture their second straight MLS Supporters Shield. Time will tell if the Earthquakes will reverse their current course and become a perennial challenger in MLS, but they will have some significant ground to cover when it comes to catching the Galaxy. It appears to be too late to do much this season; hopefully for fans of the San Jose Earthquakes, the changes start soon in preparation for 2012.