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San Jose Earthquakes training report: Roster depth tested as coach Yallop adjusts starting XI

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The worse for wear following a physically demanding 2-2 away draw against the New York Red Bulls, the Earthquakes returned back to the friendly environs of San Jose to begin a week of training ahead of their clash with Real Salt Lake. With questions surrounding the health and availability of players leading up to Saturday’s battle for first place in the MLS Western Conference, head coach Frank Yallop spent the early part of the week taking stock of the guys that he’ll call upon to take the field at Buck Shaw Stadium. He also set about dealing with the absence of a pair of players core to the team’s early season success.

As has been well documented, midfielder Shea Salinas (broken left clavicle)and defender Victor Bernardez (grade two sprained left medial collateral ligament) will miss the next six to eight weeks each as they recover from injuries suffered against the Red Bulls. (Note: Salinas was scheduled to undergo surgery early Wednesday, but as of the time of this report, the results of that procedure were still not known.) Both players have played an instrumental role in transforming the Earthquakes from a Western Conference afterthought last season to a contender for the conference crown in 2012. With his speed on the left wing, Salinas opened up interior space for the center midfielders to move the ball around in possession. He also, gave left side partner Ramiro Corrales another outlet for passes down the touchline and defensive cover when the Quakes captain overlapped into the attacking third. Salinas has made it a point to acknowledge the lessons learned from playing as a defender for the Philadelphia Union and Vancouver Whitecaps in his time away from San Jose, and how they help him understand the responsibilities of a winger on both sides of the ball.

Meanwhile, Big Vic Bernardez, in partnership with Justin Morrow in the center of the Quakes defensive back four, has stabilized a defense that last season had its fair share of breakdowns. With an intelligence on the ball, Bernardez provides a calm linkage in possession to the midfield, forcing opponents to react to rather than press the Earthquakes back four. Sure, his failure to step forward to keep Kenny Cooper in an offside position early in last weekend’s match gifted the Red Bulls the lead; however, that transgression has been the exception rather than the rule over the season’s first six games.

With both Salinas and Bernardez out of action until likely late June — a June 20th date at the Colorado Rapids comes at the tail end of an over three week break in the schedule — the Earthquakes need only look at the performances of the two guys who came into the game in their stead against the Red Bulls to realize that the fortunes of the team may keep moving in the ascendancy. Technically masterful Simon Dawkins completely transformed the Earthquakes midfield after the halftime whistle last Saturday afternoon, and long time starting defender Jason Hernandez admirably filled the vacated spot in the middle following Bernardez being unceremoniously being stretchered off the Red Bull Arena pitch.

Flash back to early in the preseason, and both Hernandez and Dawkins were projected to be starters in coach Yallop’s opening day roster against the New England Revolution. Instead, the intrepid Hernandez was sidelined with a troublesome injury that pressed Morrow into a starting role as a center back. And Dawkins had his move from Tottenham Hotspur delayed until only a week remaining in the preseason. Forced to plan for a line-up that did not feature the two players, Yallop went about building a first team that gelled around the alternatives of Salinas and Morrow, and the Earthquakes responded with their best start to a season in franchise history.

This weekend against Real Salt Lake, the Earthquakes may finally revert back to the formation that was expected from them back in January. Or will they? Along with the injuries to Salinas and Bernardez forcing changes to the starting XI, a strong possibility exists that the Earthquake may lose the services of right winger Marvin Chavez to a suspension many believe is imminent from the MLS disciplinary committee. That decision, as well as the more publicity generating fine and suspension expected to be levied on Red Bulls enforcer Rafa Marquez for his blatant rearrangement of Salinas’ collarbone, should come from MLS at any time in the next day or so.

The infraction in question committed by Chavez occurred early in the second half against the Red Bulls, when the midfield speedster, racing back at full speed to track overlapping defender Roy Miller, lunged through the air with a two-footed tackle to dispossess the New Yorker, and instead scissor tackled him from the game. Recent committee decision rulings against Shalrie Joseph of the New England Revolution and Brandon McDonald of DC United for similar dangerous tackles gifted them a one match suspension each. Chavez’ dangerous play, especially because it led to Miller leaving the match due to injury, will warrant at least that level of punishment — maybe even more. As of Wednesday, the committee had still not announced a decision on any of the controversial plays from the past weekend, but the Earthquakes likely see the writing on the wall that the talented Honduran winger will join his fellow countryman Bernardez in not suiting up to face RSL on the weekend.

Lastly, on the issue of players limping out of the Red Bulls contest, team captain Ramiro Corrales was still expected to be in the line-up to face RSL, despite having to come out of the match against New York with apparent discomfort in his right leg. Corrales was cleared to play by the Earthquakes trainers early in the week, and he set about resuming his spot in the Quakes defensive back four at left back.

With all the off-field activities behind them for now, the team took the field at their training facility on Tuesday morning for an intense series of drills and scrimmages under the watchful eye of the Earthquakes technical team. With the number of healthy bodies less than required to run a proper 11 v. 11 scrimmage, the Earthquakes were divided into two sets of ten (with assistant coach Ian Russell filling in for one side) for a spirited short field scrimmage. The blue team, led from the back by goalkeeper Jon Busch, saw Steven Beitashour, Jason Hernandez, and Ian Russell along the back line, Rafael Baca, Anthony Ampaipitakwong, Sam Cronin, and Simon Dawkins across the midfield, and Chris Wondolowski and Khari Stephenson paired up top. The Blues were very exciting to watch throughout the exercise, as crisp and creative passing sequences from Wondo, Dawkins, Ampai, and Baca delivered a feast for the eyes. Throw in the occasional authoritative finish from Khari, and the Blues played some impressive soccer.

On the other side of the field played the orange team, with imposing ‘keeper David Bingham managing between the sticks, Brad Ring, Ike Opara, and Justin Morrow manning the defense, Sam Garza, Jean-Marc Alexandre, Tressor Moreno, and Marvin Chavez through the middle, and Sercan Guvenisik and Ellis McLoughlin forming the attacking duo. The Oranges were outclassed in the middle, but used their speed on the wings to press the Blues defense. Garza in particular looked slick on the right, and looked more and more ready to join coach Yallop’s match-day 18. Guvenisik also displayed a veteran’s touch at forward and looked primed to potentially make his second MLS appearance, likely as a substitute, in Saturday’s match. Morrow functioned as a left defender for part of the scrimmage, where he worked on making intelligent overlapping runs along the touchline.

Missing from the scrimmage, but not from the training ground, were hamstring injury suffering Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon. The two target men worked out on the side of the pitch under the watchful eye of the Earthquakes trainers as they both focused on conditioning and mobility drills. Coach Yallop mentioned near the end of the training session that he hoped both players would be available for the weekend, but he acknowledged that decision wouldn’t be made until later in the week. From watching their activity Tuesday morning, Gordon looked the closer of the two to make it back to match-day 18 consideration. However, even if Gordo was cleared to play, at best he could be counted on to be available as a late substitute against Real Salt Lake.

The Earthquakes have two more full training sessions left on the schedule ahead of Saturday’s match, so much more about the direction coach Yallop is expected to take in facing RSL is still to be determined. However, one thing is for sure, the team does not look like they will be taking much of a step backward in terms of talent level, and the Quakes have every reason to be believe they can prevail over their rivals and ascend to the top of the MLS Western Conference standings.