Quakes shooting to erase "boring" connotation

San Jose promise excitement with new, offensive 4-3-3 setup

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — No matter what else happens to the San Jose Earthquakes in 2011, they should lose the tag from fans of being “too boring.”

After being criticized for adhering too closely to a philosophy of direct attacking, with long balls ahead to forwards and little in the way of buildup, the Quakes have spent this preseason recasting themselves, evolving from a fairly rigid 4-4-2 formation to a more fluid 4-3-3 attack.

“It’s going to be a little more exciting, end-to-end [play], instead of the ‘lump it and defend, lump it and defend,’” Quakes forward Ryan Johnson said after training on Tuesday. “It’s going to be a little bit more fun to watch this year.”

Coach Frank Yallop’s plan is to have a target forward up top, either newly acquired bruiser Steven Lenhart or Johnson, with one man wide on either wing – look for Bobby Convey on the left and Joey Gjertsen on the right – and two players underneath providing support and making dangerous runs out of the midfield.

Those spots will be where Khari Stephenson, Scott Sealy and, most importantly, 2010 Golden Boot winner Chris Wondolowski will see the majority of their time.

“I like the look of the system, and it’s good defensively, too, because we’re plugging the holes,” Yallop said of the 4-3-3. “I think being a solid team is being offensive. I don’t sit back to get a tie, at all. But you never win games if you leak goals, that’s for sure. So I’d like to think our team tries to play the right way.

“Towards the end of [2010], I think we started to get it. To score three goals in New York [during the MLS Cup Playoffs], and look good, it was good. We showed some good signs of offensive power.”

General manager John Doyle feels Yallop has been unfairly tarred for playing to the strengths of his team, which was reborn as an expansion franchise in 2008 and for its first two seasons was found wanting in terms of firepower.

“When we played New York, we had five forwards on the field,” Doyle said. “That’s not a 4-4-2. The days of saying the San Jose Earthquakes play a strict 4-4-2 [are over]. I think Frank’s always been a real offensive coach.”

Yallop hasn’t committed to using the 4-3-3 fulltime – he calls the Quakes “a traditional 4-4-2 team with the ability to change” – but the formation has featured prominently in San Jose’s preseason matches, and Yallop thinks the new setup could benefit Wondolowski in his quest to match last season’s 18-goal haul.

“Wondo’s a 4-3-3 player because he likes to drop a little bit and arrive late,” Yallop said. “When he was up front, trying to play that [4-4-2 striker] position, it didn’t really work for him. When we let him go wide right or underneath and kind of do his thing, just sniff the ball out, he was outstanding.”

Wondolowski, who describes his role in the new formation as “a hybrid of an attacking mid and a second forward,” has no complaints about moving to the middle of the park.

“I really like that because it allows me to come back and help keep possession and also be able to get into the box when the ball gets wide and be up there, so chances will come,” Wondolowski told MLSsoccer.com.

Johnson, who has played on the left wing and as the target man this preseason, feels the plan will lead to more one-on-one chances for wingers to beat their man and wreak havoc in the opposition’s back line. It also should afford San Jose more rapid-fire chances at crosses, before the defense has had a chance to adequately mark everyone.

What will be interesting to see is if the team continues using the 4-3-3 while Lenhart recovers from arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. The former Columbus striker is expected to miss the team’s March 19 season opener at a minimum, and his physical presence – which draws defenders’ attention – cannot be easily replaced.

And all talk of the 4-3-3 will be moot if the formation fails to deliver on its promise of more goals.

“I think that we’re bringing a better style of football, one the fans are going to enjoy,” Wondolowski said. “That being said, they’re not going to like us keeping the ball 80 percent of the time and losing 1-0, 2-1, something like that.”

Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at sanjosequakes@gmail.com. On Twitter: @sjquakes