A major part of the San Jose Earthquakes success this season has come due to a roster that is not top heavy, and instead is made up of a broad base of comparably talented players. At no other place in the line-up is that roster depth felt than at the forward position, and subsequently the Earthquakes pace MLS in goals scored and are on track to set a single season franchise record.
Star striker Chris Wondolowski’s name is etched into head coach Frank Yallop’s starting XI, but waiting in the wings is talented Englishman Simon Dawkins. And while Dawkins forces his way onto the field via a different position — usually on the left wing — a third option comes in Turkish born forward Sercan Guvenisik. In his first year in MLS, the veteran product of Germany’s football leagues has not made much of an impact at the senior level, but he is tearing it up for the Earthquakes reserves. Just last Sunday he scored a hat-trick for San Jose against the Portland Timbers reserves.
With Wondolowski a mainstay up top, the question becomes who to pair him up with as the target forward to his second forward. And for most of the season, that player has been either Steven Lenhart or Alan Gordon. At times, one has started and the other has entered as a replacement. In the cases when the team needed a late offensive boost — which seemed to be nearly every week — Yallop would get both on the field at the same time. Even if one was out via injury or suspension, the other was ready to go the full 90 and help the Earthquakes climb to the top of the MLS standings. And the capper: Both players are having career seasons this year as part of the team’s race to the Supporters’ Shield.
Over the summer, the pair have not seen the field together as much as earlier in the year, and the Earthquakes results have somewhat flattened out. However, with both available to play this weekend against Chivas USA, Yallop now has that vexing issue of which big man is going to get the start on Sunday.
"It’s a good problem to have as a coach," Yallop shared after training on Tuesday. "We’ll see who gets the start. It’s been a long season, and there are times you maybe want to give guys rests, and maybe say its time to bring them off the bench. It’s up to me to make sure I manage guys properly and that we are really strong and ready to go."
Looking at the statistics for the two target forwards, the two are nearly interchangeable. Lenhart has made 18 appearances (14 starts) and played 1167 minutes. With 8 goals and 1 assists in that time, he is averaging 0.62 goals every 90 minutes. Gordon, on the other hand, has made 17 appearances (8 starts) and played 901 minutes. With 11 goals and 3 assists in that time, Gordon is averaging an incredible 1.10 goals every 90 minutes. In comparison, Quakes MVP Wondolowski averages 0.75 goals every 90 minutes. The three Earthquakes strikers, of MLS players with more than 5 goals scored, have compiled scoring rates that place them in the top six in the league this season.
So will we see Gordon or Lenhart start against the Goats? While the Earthquakes would like to keep winning in order to wrap up their first Supporters’ Shield trophy since 2005, Yallop has made it clear that he does not want to overextend any particular players when the main goal is simply to qualify for the postseason.
"We still have to make the playoffs," said Yallop, "but we’re doing pretty well right now to make that happen. For now my job is making sure people are rested and all ready to go and moving in the right direction."
With that layered response — Lenhart is rested from missing that last match against the Colorado Rapids through suspension and Gordon is the one to have played the last game as a starter though he has more appearances as a substitute — Yallop will keep us all guessing just a little bit longer. Maybe by Sunday afternoon the answer will become clear. And whatever the decision is, Chivas USA had better look out.