CenterLine Report: Great Expectations
Unless you were a true blue-bleeding supporters’ section diehard, or an astute observer of preseason camp, the on-field success enjoyed by the San Jose Earthquakes in 2012 came as somewhat of a surprise. Picked by any pundits to languish at or below the MLS Cup playoffs cutoff line, the Quakes instead rolled to the league’s best record and the club’s second ever Supporters’ Shield award.
The “Goonies,” as the players affectionately became known, propelled the Quakes to a series of franchise records in a plethora of offensive categories. Over the grueling six month MLS regular season, the team vanquished conference rival after conference rival and set a new standard for entertainment at Buck Shaw Stadium. From hijinks in the pregame team photo to enthusiastic goal celebrations, the Earthquakes played with a mixture of joy and determination on their way to a postseason appearance.
And now, just two months later, with the grass at the Earthquakes training facility still to develop into its verdant best, the team is back to initiate another MLS campaign. After enduring a rather quiet offseason in comparison to their competitors — nearly the entire rotation of core players returns in 2013 — a rejuvenated, rather than retooled, group of Goonies look ahead to another opportunity to shock and awe. But what can be expected this time around? Will fortunes rise or fall at The Buck this season? And who will be making headlines for the club in 2013? Obviously, a look ahead at the new Quakes season is in order.
Fortress Buck Shaw — Foremost, what propelled the Quakes to the Supporters’ Shield in 2012 was an exemplary standard of play at Buck Shaw Stadium. Through 15 regular season games at their tiny Santa Clara home, the Earthquakes rattled off 9 wins and 6 draws, scoring 43 goals and allowing only 22. “Blond-haired-bedlam” captivated the crowd at a midsummer contest against the Chicago Fire, and a 5-0 goal scoring clinic was taught to Real Salt Lake in early July. The team looked indomitable at home in 2012 — though the playoff loss to end the year must be acknowledged — and will look to continue that form into the new season. With the club scheduled to move into their new stadium in 2014, this season will be the last for Fortress Buck Shaw.
“Goonies never say die” — The motto, a call-back to an ‘80s movie that only a select few on the rosters even saw during its theatrical release, was born the night Alan Gordon led the Earthquakes back from a two goal deficit to defeat the mighty LA Galaxy 3-2. The Earthquakes spiritual leader on the field and in the clubhouse, with his flicked on header over a flailing Josh Saunders stunned the Galaxy crowd and sent the traveling congregation of Quakes supporters into rapture. The result, coming as it did on the heels of two prior dramatic comebacks, served notice that until the final whistle sounded, the club was not going to capitulate to the opposition. Shattering all such records relevant to the idea of playing to the last second, the Earthquakes scored 10 equalizing or winning goals after the 90th minute. Such heroics seem incomprehensible, but with a determined squad returning for the 2013 season with the same mentality makes it all possible again.
Career years for Quakes — To have reached such heights in 2012 required the Earthquakes to perform at a consistently high level, and as such, many players turned in career years last season. On the offensive side of the ball, Chris Wondolowski (27), Gordon (13), Steven Lenhart (10), and Simon Dawkins (8) all set high water marks for scoring. Speedster Marvin Chavez, the midfield catalyst for the Quakes, chipped in a career high 13 assists in the effort. Fullbacks Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow each made 33 appearances during the regular season, and both saw their efforts rewarded with starting spots in the 2012 MLS All-Star game Starting XI. Anchoring the defensive line, burly centerback Victor Bernardez came within a whisper of winning MLS Defender of the Year, and instead had to settle for the league’s Newcomer award. Will all those players, and maybe some not already mentioned, match or surpass their 2012 accomplishments this season? Come even close, and the Earthquakes will once again be MLS Cup contenders.
Crush your rivals — Making it to the postseason in the new MLS of unbalanced schedules requires a team to take care of business within its own conference. In 2012, the Quakes did just that, especially against the teams considered their biggest rivals. In nine regular season games against the LA Galaxy, Seattle Sounders, and Real Salt Lake, the Earthquakes finished with eight wins and a draw. No wonder San Jose was celebrating a conference crown at a time on the calendar when wearing white was still allowed. Since 2013 features a similar slate of conference heavy opponents, the imperative once again is to take care of business against their chief postseason chasing rivals. Make it a complete domination for a second year in a row, and perhaps the Supporters’ Shield will extend its stay in San Jose.
The (international) sky’s the limit — The success of the Quakes in the 2012 regular season brought about another reward: an entry into the 2013-14 CONCACAF Champions League. Still under the radar in terms of general public attention, playing in the continental tournament has rapidly risen to the top of the to-do list for many MLS clubs. A league side has not won the new-look tournament in recent years — only teams from Mexico can claim that distinction — but RSL came within a goal of lifting the championship trophy in 2011. Since then, the value of performing well in the CCL has been recognized across the MLS landscape, and this season the Quakes will have their opportunity to cash in. Want to be measured among the best club’s in the league? CCL success is a nice way to elevate a team’s credentials.
Was 2012 an aberration, or will 2013 prove just how special this squad can be? Expectations abound that this season, at least among the players, the MLS Cup will be making its way to San Jose. A lofty goal, sure, but also a just reward for a team that has shown what an effective combination desire and talent can accomplish. And what better way for the club to end its tenure at Buck Shaw and move into its new stadium than to add another trophy to the case. Yes, entering the 2013 season, the motto for these Goonies is “MLS Cup Champions or bust!”