Usually, when a team finishes last in its conference, with the second-worst overall record in its league, there’s a long list of things the front office and coaching staff need to fix in order to make the team competitive again.
But as the Earthquakes took stock after their 7-14-9 season in 2009, it was glaringly apparent that their offseason retooling needed to focus on one thing, almost to the exclusion of all others: correcting a defense that allowed a league-high 50 goals last season.
“If we would have stopped teams from scoring -- and that’s a team thing, the whole unit -- we would have been in a lot more games,” San Jose general manager John Doyle told MLSsoccer.com.
To that end, the Earthquakes used three of their five picks in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft on defenders, including the selection of Wake Forest All-American Ike Opara at No. 3 overall. Also coming in were Justin Morrow of Notre Dame and Steve Beitashour, a San Jose native out of Leland High and San Diego State.
Opara, who is racking up frequent-flier miles as he juggles course work at Wake Forest with the Earthquakes’ schedule, will be in the mix to start at center back, along with Jason Hernandez and Bobby Burling.
Morrow will be backing up Ramiro Corrales on the left side, and Beitashour will do the same for Chris Leitch on the right. Although coach Frank Yallop thinks they can do more than that.
“It’s not just cover, it’s competing for the spot,” Yallop said. “It’s not just, ‘If Ramiro gets injured, Justin Morrow gets to play.' Justin Morrow’s done pretty well. So Ramiro’s got to play real well, and that’s good. That’s what you want. That’s what I think you should have.”
If you had to pick a starting point for the Quakes’ slide from allowing 38 goals in 2008 to a 31.5 percent increase a year later, it would probably have to be Jason Hernandez’s calf problem, which mushroomed into an eight-game absence to start the season.
That threw a wrench into Yallop’s plans for the back line, and things never got better. The center back spots turned into a fast-moving carousel, starters constantly moving in and out of the lineup because of injury and ineffectiveness.
Among the other defenders who opened 2009 with the Earthquakes, two were traded midseason (Nick Garcia to Toronto on June 9, Ryan Cochrane to Houston on Aug. 14), two were waived midseason (Eric Denton and Kelly Gray) and one never got off the bench due to a variety of injuries (Jamil Roberts).
Hernandez played gamely after his return, but then broke his left ankle with two matches left on the schedule. Only Leitch kept up his end of the bargain, but his work couldn’t wholly mask the Earthquakes’ significant problems.
“We added depth last year, but the guys we had didn’t perform at the level we wanted them to,” Doyle said. “So then the depth ended up getting to play, and then we moved the guys that we thought were going to be the starters out.”
If it’s any indication of the progress made thus far during preseason, goalkeepers Joe Cannon and Andrew Weber have not been overburdened with work. San Jose posted seven shutouts in its 10 exhibitions, including clean sheets against the Wizards, Rapids and Dynamo.
“It feels good," Burling said. "We’ve had great shape and had four consecutive clean sheets,” Burling said. “Guys are working hard. ... As long as we keep the old man [Cannon] happy, that’s what matters.”