The San Jose Earthquakes prepared this week for the arrival of the Vancouver Whitecaps for tonight’s Western Conference showdown with an eye at building on their performance last weekend against the Seattle Sounders. In what was one of their more complete performances of the year, the Earthquakes showed good sequences of possession through midfield and a resolute defense that secured the team’s third clean sheet of the young 2012 season.
Bruising target forward Steven Lenhart consistently gave San Jose enough time to enter the attacking third via his ability to hold up the ball in possession. He also earned the penalty kick on Seattle defender Marc Burch that Chris Wondolowski buried from the spot for the game’s only goal. Aside from goalkeeper Jon Busch, whose second half heroics preserved the 1-0 victory, Lenhart was the most effective player on the artificial turf surface of CenturyLink Field.
However, the prospect of Lenhart again lending his services at the point of the Earthquakes attack this weekend against the Whitecaps has been ruled out due to a tight right hamstring the burly forward carried over from the match in Seattle. With head coach Frank Yallop speaking confidently as late as Thursday that he expected Lenhart would be ready for the Vancouver match, the forward was officially shelved early Friday morning due to injury.
With the Earthquakes other true target forward still not ready to go a full 90 minutes according to coach Yallop, the choices to pair with Wondolowki at forward against the Whitecaps seem to boil down to Khari Stephenson and Simon Dawkins. The tall Jamaican played in that capacity for much of the tail end of the 2011 season and proved to be fairly effective in helping open up opportunities for Wondolowski to score six goals over the team’s last five matches. Meanwhile, the Tottenham loanee has shown already this season in training that he is well suited to play as a second forward. Coach Yallop will have the choice of either swapping Stephenson in for Lenhart and keeping the formation consistent, or shifting Wondolowski to the point and playing Dawkins as a withdrawn forward. Either way keeps the midfield set-up the same as played against Seattle, but presents Vancouver with two very different looks out of the Earthquakes front two.
Coach Yallop wouldn’t tip his hand as to which choice he will make against the Whitecaps, but the likely decision should fall in favor of the Englishman. While Stephenson did well as a de facto target forward in 2011, Dawkins showed with performances back with the Tottenham reserves that he is ready to produce from the forward role. Tactically, starting Stephenson might not require as many adjustments as starting Dawkins, but the Spurs product has earned his chance to produce over a full 90 minutes of play.
The bigger question coming out of the Seattle game was whether team captain Ramiro Corrales would be ready to go. He suffered a mild ankle sprain as a result of a nasty tackle from Sounders midfielder Christian Sivebaek at the end of the first half, and he was replaced in the line-up by Jason Hernandez. Starting with Tuesday’s training session, Corrales was already back to full strength and practicing with the first team. Coach Yallop suggested that he’d be ready to start at left back and that Justin Morrow could slide back into a center back partnership with Victor Bernardez. Given that the Earthquakes have yet to yield a goal from the run of play over their first four games of the season, keeping the defensive back four the same will be a priority for coach Yallop.
Speaking of center backs, Big Vic Bernardez held court with reporters following Thursday’s training session, and stated his straightforward goal for 2012 of playing every minute of every game. Given just how complete his efforts have been so far this season, anyone with a rooting interest in the seeing the Earthquakes do well in 2012 will share the Honduran’s hopes for a healthy season. Bernardez has turned heads within San Jose and around MLS for his prowess in the aerial game and his calmness on the ball and in distribution out of the back. Those qualities have played a large part in how the Earthquakes have been able to be more effective in controlling possession in the early season.
Taking a quick look at the midfield, Sam Cronin as defender and Rafael Baca as attacker has proven to be a very successful combination. Both players provide the ability to carry the ball in possession as well as provide links to wingers Shea Salinas and Marvin Chavez. Baca especially has had a strong start to 2012 and looks more and more the Earthquakes best option at the attacking midfielder position. While not even a year into his MLS career, Baca has proven he can play against talented opposing defensive midfielders like Seattle’s Osvaldo Alonso and New England’s Shalrie Joseph without losing ground or possession. He will have his hands full with the two-defensive midfielder formation featured by the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday, but he has proven more than capable of distributing the ball from side to side, or even back through Cronin to keep opponents guessing.
Throughout the week the Earthquakes players have looked confident in training, and they look poised to continue their hot start in the 2012 season against the Whitecaps. While the loss of Lenhart could prove huge, the Earthquakes should find little drop-off in terms of talent if Dawkins is called upon to start in his place. If Stephenson gets the call, then the tactics the Earthquakes have used throughout 2012 stay virtually unchanged, and the team can go about the busy of harassing the opponent to create turnovers while pressing forward into attack creating scoring opportunities for Wondolowski. Either way, San Jose must be considered the favorites in their battle against the Whitecaps at Buck Shaw Stadium for their late afternoon kickoff scheduled for 4:00 p.m.
(Photo: Joe Nuxoll, centerlinesoccer.com)
- The Earthquakes have invited Brazilian born forward Sullivan Silva in for trial this past week. The 22-year old striker played last year with Capital City FC in Canada following a stint with the departed-for-Orlando Austin Aztex in 2010. Silva came recommended to coach Yallop, so he offered the young forward a chance to trial in San Jose. Yallop did not mention how long they expected Silva to train with the team.
- The last player to sign with the Earthquakes coming out of the preseason was defender Josh Suggs, but the New Mexico native will not spend the summer in San Jose. On Thursday, the Earthquakes announced that Suggs was being loaned to the NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies for the rest of the 2012 season. The rookie defender will still participate in the Earthquakes reserve league games this season, and can at any time be recalled to the team from Tampa Bay, but the loan agreement through October should give Suggs plenty of playing time that he wouldn’t otherwise receive in San Jose. The Humboldt State product follows in the footsteps of current starting center back Justin Morrow in being loaned to the Rowdies. Suggs will hope his experience follows the same path as the third year defender Morrow has been able to fashion for himself.
- Forward Sercan Guvenisik is still recuperating from a leg injury suffered in a Reserve League match against the Portland Timbers last week, and he gave no time table for his return to full training sessions. He looked in good spirits following Thursday’s session, and wants to get back to the field as soon as possible.
- Following the match on Saturday, the Vancouver Whitecaps will stick around San Jose for one additional day in order to face the Earthquakes in an Easter morning Reserve League match. Scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Earthquakes training facility on Coleman Ave. in San Jose, the match is open to the public and should provide another good opportunity to see how the second team is faring for the Earthquakes.