Every training camp opens with a bushel of questions to be answered, and the San Jose Earthquakes are no different. As they begin their 2011 campaign Thursday with their first official practice of the new season, here are 10 things for Quakes fans to watch:
1) Starting at forward for your San Jose Earthquakes is…
The Quakes have retooled their attack, cutting ties with Arturo Alvarez, Eduardo, Cornell Glen and their first Designated Player, former EPL and La Liga veteran Geovanni. To replace that firepower, they traded out of the first round of the 2011 MLS SuperDraft in order to pick up bruising forward Steven Lenhart from Columbus.
Coach Frank Yallop foresees a rebound year from Ryan Johnson, who dipped from 11 goals in 2009 to one last year. But which one will pair with 2010 Golden Boot winner Chris Wondolowski? Or will it be someone else entirely?
2) What can Wondo do for an encore?
Wondolowski admits that matching his 18-goal season from last year – including a late surge to overhaul the Galaxy’s Edson Buddle in the Golden Boot chase – is almost impossible. But unless Lenhart suddenly increases his accuracy, Johnson relocates his touch or a mystery guest joins the party late, the Quakes will once again be dependent in large part on Wondolowski’s productivity.
3) How will Jon Busch respond to being the unquestioned No. 1?
Busch, who joined the Quakes just after 2010 began, was a driving force behind the club’s run to the Eastern Conference Championship. But it’s important to remember that his inconsistent play handed the No. 1 job back to Joe Cannon in August, and if not for Cannon breaking an ankle the following week, Busch might not have been playing at all during the postseason. With Cannon now in Vancouver, the Quakes no longer have the luxury of switching back and forth between two ‘keepers so evenly matched in terms of talent.
4) Who will start at center back?
[inline_node:325288]You can never have enough quality defenders, so the Earthquakes face the happy problem of having a glut of talent in the middle of their defense. Last season, injuries forced Yallop to move Brandon McDonald from holding midfield to center back, alongside Jason Hernandez, a partnership each man preferred. But keeping those two together means there’s no room for second-year player Ike Opara, who impressed as a rookie before breaking his foot.
There’s also Bobby Burling, a towering figure who provided some quality play. And in McDonald’s old spot is Sam Cronin, who played well enough as a holding mid to earn an invitation to the US national team’s training camp this month. Where do they all fit in?
5) Whither Khari Stephenson?
The Jamaican international made a big splash when he arrived midway through 2010, immediately solidifying a wobbly San Jose attack. He was slowed by injury down the stretch, but did enough that the team wanted to keep him. However, Stephenson’s old team, Aalesunds of Norway’s top flight, originally sent him to San Jose on loan, and wants to be compensated for his full release. General manager John Doyle is working hard to keep Stephenson but also wants to preserve precious salary-cap space. Can a new deal be reached to keep Stephenson Stateside?
6) Is Scott Sealy the answer?
If Stephenson doesn’t return, the Quakes’ next best option as an attacking force in the middle of the park may be Sealy, who was moved to that position late in 2010 and earned raves from Yallop. But the Trinidadian may also be needed as a change of pace at forward. Wherever he plays, San Jose need him to be productive – maybe more so than he ever has been in the MLS.
7) Can Andre Luiz make an impact?
Before the Quakes were debating the relative merits of Stephenson and Sealy as an attacking center midfielder, they had veteran André Luiz running the show. But the Brazilian’s knee went bad from the start last year, eventually necessitating season-ending surgery – leading to the pickup of Stephenson in the first place. The team is hopeful that the 36-year-old can recover and play a part as something more than a recruiter for other countrymen. It remains to be seen if that hope will come true.
8) Will Bobby Convey maintain his form? [inline_node:323027]
After three years of struggling with the effects of microfracture surgery, Convey finally felt healthy in 2010, and it showed on the field, where he was a stalwart for the Quakes on the left side as a wing and as a fullback. That led to a team-best and career-high 10 assists last season.
Now the challenge for Convey is to do it again.
9) Will the Quakes stick with longball?
San Jose brass have talked at various times over the past two years about moving away from the long-ball, direct-attack tactics that are almost inevitable for an expansion team and beginning to possess the ball more, building up pressure with quick, crisp passing. Second-round SuperDraft selection Anthony Ampaipitakwong exemplified that kind of play with NCAA champion Akron, but without a major change in culture, can Quakes fans really buy into the idea San Jose will alter their game plan?
10) Is another DP in the offing?
There certainly won’t be one at the start of the season; the Quakes are selling their optimism in what they have coming back from a team that made last year’s final four. Reading between the happy sound bites, it appears as though San Jose will have to prove during the first half of the season that they have a playoff-worthy base in order for the front office to sign off on a midseason influx of talent – which could include another DP.
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @sjquakes