Week two of the preseason finds the San Jose Earthquakes in sunny, but cold, Tucson for a pair of preseason matches against fellow MLS competitors Houston Dynamo and Colorado Rapids. Interspersed between the two friendlies will be a number of training sessions that are expected to increase in intensity as the team prepares for its home opener on March 3.
The squad is heavy with second teamers and trialists — evident in the side that took down the Dynamo 2-0 in yesterday’s match — as well as the veteran core that captured last season’s Supporters’ Shield. Many are still rehabbing from offseason surgeries and ailments, but most are expected back before too long. And so, with the preseason in full swing (the Earthquakes still have visits to Oxnard and Portland on the agenda), what are some of the storylines to follow over the next four weeks?
Mending the infirm: By all accounts, if the MLS season started today, head coach Frank Yallop would be pressed to field more than half of his preferred Starting XI players. No more is that evident than at the forward position, where Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon — the new Bay Area Bash Brothers — are still working their way back to full fitness. Each has the unenviable job of mixing it up with opposing defenders when on the field, and that wear and tear built up over the long 2012 season. Playing through pain is nothing new to professional athletes, and the two biggest characters on the Quakes were certainly not going to let a little, or big, injury get in the way of them suiting up, but now both need proper rest and rejuvenation ahead of another tough MLS season. Lenhart is projected to fully integrate into the squad by mid-February and Gordon a month later, so perhaps there is no need to ring the alarm bells just yet. However, the Earthquakes may look a whole lot different on First Kick night against Real Salt Lake without at least one of their target forwards.
International bright young things: One price of success is that you get a whole lot more attention than perhaps you want, but it also can lead to new and exciting opportunities. For the Earthquakes in 2012, being in the headlines pushed up the stock of some of the team’s best contributors, and now they are reaping the rewards with call-ups to play at the international level. Chris Wondolowski, Justin Morrow, and Steven Beitashour for the United States and Victor Bernardez and Marvin Chavez for Honduras have had busy Januarys with their national teams. Not being with their club team to start preseason camp perhaps only had the effect of making for less crowded training sessions for the rest of their Quakes teammates, but all five will need to quickly mesh in with the group upon their returns. Given that all five are key components to the Starting XI, getting some training time together could be crucial.
Redemption and opportunity: In 2012, amid the success and excitement of the Quakes run to the top of the MLS table, two players dealt with what could at best be called frustrated campaigns. Returning Earthquake Shea Salinas started the season on fire, but saw that momentum crushed by a dirty Rafa Marquez rugby tackle in New York. The winger struggled to get back to health only to suffer a hamstring injury in a Reserve League match. Salinas remained upbeat throughout, but he will certainly target 2013 as a chance to put together a complete successful season. Another winger, rookie Sam Garza also suffered through a difficult year, as ailments limited his ability early on. Garza did shine in the early rounds of the U.S. Open Cup tournament, but injuries limited his production the rest of the way. The Generation Adidas and first round Superdraft selection came to camp looking as fit as ever, and he will look to turn on its head any notion that he will deliver a “sophomore slump.”
Making the grade: The annual rite of the trialist parade in the MLS preseason is one not to be missed, and the Earthquakes will be participating full-bore in 2013. With possibly 7-8 roster spots still up for grabs, the mix of draft picks and trialists currently in camp have an opportunity to grab the attention of the Quakes technical staff. Yesterday’s match against the Dynamo was a great chance for many of these fringe players to state their case for a contract, and it provided a wonderful window for fans to make their own assessments, but it is the day-to-day dedication to the team that the coaches will be monitoring carefully. The Earthquakes ethos is one of hard-work and sacrifice for the good of the whole team. Soccer skills are, of course, important, but so too is being compatible with the current Quakes. These metrics will all be under consideration when deciding who makes the cut and who moves on.
Building for the future: In terms of the long-term view, many of the young rookies and trialists in camp, even if signed, may never see minutes with the first team. Instead, they will be looked at as building blocks for future seasons. In parallel to the on-field forward vision, the club will also cast an eye toward moving into their new home one season from now. On the lot adjacent to the Quakes training field will soon rise a symbol of the club’s future in San Jose. The groundbreaking ceremony has come and gone, and the next stage of visible construction is expected to start in late February. Fans and players alike will definitely be keeping track of the progress on the Earthquakes new stadium throughout 2013.