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San Jose Earthquakes preseason training intensifies as MLS regular season opener just over a month away

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On what would normally be a day off for the San Jose Earthquakes during the course of the regular season instead turned into a lengthy session of drills and fitness tests at the Quakes training facility Wednesday afternoon. With just under five weeks remaining until San Jose hosts the New England Revolution at Buck Shaw Stadium as part of MLS opening weekend, Earthquakes players and coaches went full speed ahead with their preseason training.

With 2012 MLS SuperDraft second round pick Chris Blais and Supplemental Draft third round pick David Tiemstra having left the team without earning a contract offer, the number of unsigned players in camp has been reduced to nine. Defender trialists Kyle Davies and Lyle Martin have looked strong since joining Earthquakes preseason training back in January, as has goalkeeper candidate Evan Newton. The promising performances by the three players were clearly enough to push aside the chances of Blais and Tiemstra to make the Earthquakes roster.

When asked what was the roster size the team was targeting to open the MLS season, head coach Frank Yallop stated that he expected to go with a 28-man squad. League rules allow for up to 30 players on the Salary and Salary-exempt roster, but reducing that number to 28 allows for more flexibility when fitting the total wage bill under the salary cap. Projected to be in the neighborhood of $2.81 million for the 2012 season, the Quakes appear to be keeping their financial options open to make additional signings and loan deals.

With 25 players currently under contract and a long rumored signing of midfielder Simon Dawkins to another loan deal emerging on the horizon, the Earthquakes have only two spots open before they reach their intended limit. Coach Yallop acknowledged that the competition among trialists and draft picks had intensified over the course of the preseason, as players fight for the precious remaining spots, but he stated that the decision to sign players would likely occur much closer to the roster compliant date of March 1. Additionally, Yallop reiterated that players under contract could still be dealt within MLS as a way to free up roster space, but he wouldn’t go into specifics of who might be traded in that scenario.

On the training field, the 24 healthy field players in camp split into two squads for a half-field possession drill. Focusing on quick one- and two-touch passing on the offensive side of the ball, the drill highlighted the need for defense players to keep their shape in the central part of the field and force the ball to the wings. Both sides went at it with a strong intensity, with Chris Wondolowski and Sam Cronin showing well for the blue team and Rafael Baca and Jean-Marc Alexandre pacing the orange team. MLS newcomers Victor Bernardez and Tressor Moreno appeared to still be adjusting to the speed of play, but both players looked very good with the ball at their feet. Encouraging for Earthquakes fans was the sight of Ike Opara putting in a good effort. The oft-injured defender looks no worse for wear coming off season ending surgery last year and appears primed to make a run at spot in coach Yallop’s season opening starting XI.

Doing yeoman’s work for the orange team was team captain Ramiro Corrales, showing that despite being the last of the MLS original ‘96ers — the other remaining originals Zach Thornton and Frankie Hejduk are both likely to retire before the season starts — he could keep pace with the array of youngsters nipping at his heels. Corrales still has the inside track to start the season at left back for the Earthquakes, and nothing he did Wednesday in training would dispel that notion. Coming off a season in which he set a personal best for minutes played in his 10 seasons with the Clash/Earthquakes, the 34-year old shows no signs of taking it easy in 2012.

The Earthquakes will train for one more day in San Jose before heading down the coast to face the Colorado Rapids in a Friday night friendly at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. Following that contest, the team continues on to Oxnard for a week of training before returning to the Bay Area February 20.

After being released by the Earthquakes Tuesday afternoon, goalkeeper Chris Blais took to Twitter to say goodbye to San Jose fans. He also mentioned that he was cut to make room for a homegrown goalkeeper signing. While team officials couldn’t comment on that possibility, the contract status of the two likely Academy graduates that Blais may have been referring to was clarified. Jesus Guzman, the 2011 U.S. U-17/18 Development Academy Goalkeeper of the Year as a member of the Earthquakes Academy, has spent the better part of the last six months training with Mexican Primera side Santos Laguna and has signed a deal with their developmental squad. Meanwhile, Kendall McIntosh, a standout goalkeeper for the U.S. Youth National Team in 2011’s U-17 World Cup, is currently enrolled at Santa Clara University. Of the two, McIntosh appears to be the only goalkeeping candidate that might possibly be signed by the San Jose Earthquakes to a home-grown player deal.