After an off-season that both seemed to last forever and go by in the blink of an eye, Major League Soccer has embarked on its 16th campaign to much fanfare and anticipation. For the San Jose Earthquakes, the festivities begin with a visit to Buck Shaw Stadium this Saturday by Real Salt Lake in what will be the first of 17 home games during the 2011 regular season.
With preseason training and practice matches now in the rearview mirror, the time to look forward at what might be in store for the Earthquakes this season is at hand. Yes, before a ball is kicked with purpose by Chris Wondolowski, Sam Cronin, Jason Hernandez, and the rest of the team, predictions for the season are in order.
On the heels of a very successful 2010 season that saw the Earthquakes fall just one game short of playing in the MLS Cup Final, what will San Jose do for an encore? Can Wondo make it two MLS Budweiser Golden Boots in a row? Will Jon Busch return to the top of the MLS goalkeeping mountain after a two year absence the Keeper of the Year award? Anything seems possible for a team that surprised a lot of fans and pundits last season, so let’s take a look at some of the possible outcomes for 2011.
Fortress Buck Shaw 2.0?
The big news this week was the unveiling of plans to make Buck Shaw Stadium a more desirable and enjoyable destination to watch soccer for the 2011 season. Gourmet food trucks and increased offerings at the concession stands should make pre-game eating an experience to savor. An expanded fan zone with games and activities should also contribute positively to the game day enjoyment. For the lucky 10,300 fans that make it to Buck Shaw to watch a home game this season, the team wants them to feel right at home.
However, that is not the case for the seventeen MLS opponents that will venture to San Jose. From the supporters groups in the stands to the players on the field, the goal in 2011 is to make Buck Shaw 2.0 the most formidable stadium opposing teams will visit all season. Over the course of the year, 51 points are up for grabs at home, and the Earthquakes will want to secure the vast majority in their efforts to reach the postseason. Garner points beyond the 35 point threshold at Buck Shaw in 2011 and playoff soccer will almost certainly be on tap. So Earthquakes fans — be loud, be proud, and together help push the Black-and-Blue past that goal.
It’s a Wondo-ful World
When the Earthquakes started the 2010 season, Chris Wondolowski was just another player on the bench waiting patiently for his chance to shine on the field. Always a hard worker in training, Wondo continued to hone his craft, knowing the time would come when his team would need him. Not many predicted when he started the April 23 match against the New England Revolution that he would score the game-winning goal. No one predicted he would add eight more game winners over the course of the season. To finish with a career high 18 goals and the honor of the MLS Golden Boot winner was unfathomable.
Now, it’s a new season with new expectations for the Danville native. He finished the preseason season with five goals in his last five games, doing nothing in the process to damper the notion that he will once again be among the league’s elite goal scorers. If Wondo can surpass the 12-goal plateau in 2011, the Earthquakes will be well on their way to another winning season.
Defense Quakes, Defense!
Since their rebirth in 2008, the Earthquakes have taken great pride in their defensive efforts. Anchoring the back line for San Jose is central defender and part-time captain Jason Hernandez, who takes great pride anytime his crew can deliver a clean sheet. Last season, the team finished with their best goals-against average (GAA) — 1.1 — in their three years back in San Jose.
Entering the 2011 season with Jon Busch as the clear No. 1 goalkeeper behind a solid defensive back four, the team will look to move that GAA number below the 1.0 mark for the first time since the Earthquakes’ Supporters Shield winning side of 2005. Four of the top-five teams to make the playoffs in 2010 accomplished that feat — the Earthquakes will punch their postseason ticket with that level of effort in 2011.
Hey Now, You’re an All-Star…
After a disappointing start to the 2010 campaign, midfielder Bobby Convey went on an absolute tear that, by July, saw him shredding defenses around the league to the tune of eight assists, including six on game-tying or game-winning goals. His just reward was a selection to the MLS All-Star game in Houston to face EPL champions Manchester United. His third all-star selection in his MLS career, Convey was the face of the Earthquakes during their successful first half of the season.
In 2011, the Earthquakes will again hope to send a representative — or two, or three — to the MLS All-Star game July 27th at Red Bull Arena. Convey will again look to be invited, but expect Chris Wondolowski to also be highly considered. Still likely to be the chief goal scorer for San Jose this season, Wondo will have a fantastic opportunity to play in the league’s midseason classic by doing what he does best. Knock in eight or nine goals by July and he can certainly book his plane ticket back east.
In three short years, the San Jose Earthquakes organization went from a tiny office in a non-descript Santa Clara building with no coach and no players to contenders for an MLS Conference Championship. You have to take a step back and realize just how special that achievement was given how difficult it is for expansion teams to find early success in this league. Being on the brink of playing in the MLS Cup Final is now not enough for Earthquakes players — they all want their opportunity to lift the Philip F. Anschutz trophy into a storm of black and blue confetti in 2011.
Expectations of making the playoffs again this season swirl around the team much like a confetti storm, with coaches, players, and supporters alike all wanting another shot at postseason glory. With a playoff system that can reward a team for getting hot late in the year, just qualifying is enough to make those dreams come true. While the MLS Western Conference will again feature a murderer’s row of quality opponents, the Earthquakes have shown the will and determination necessary in a champion and will settle for nothing less than their chance to lift the MLS Cup in 2011.
Robert Jonas is a writer for CenterLineSoccer.com and SJEarthquakes.com. Send him feedback on Twitter: @RobertJonas