With two games against MLS competition already in the books and an upcoming friendly this weekend against the LA Galaxy, the San Jose Earthquakes are starting to find their stride as they reach the midpoint of their preseason preparations ahead of their season opener on March 15.
Sure, the Quakes returned from Tucson, Arizona, with a pair of losses leading off their slate of tune-up matches, but the goal for head coach Mark Watson, in charge of his first preseason training camp with San Jose, is more about getting players adjusted to his system.
“Everyone’s in competition with one another,” said Watson from Tucson last week. “We have a lot of new faces here and we are trying to figure all those things out. Who has the quality, who should play where, and all that stuff. That’s why you have a preseason.”
In the Earthquakes 2-1 loss against the Seattle Sounders on February 5, Watson used a completely different 11-man squad in each half. From the opening whistle, veterans Steven Lenhart at forward and Victor Bernardez at center back lined up respectively next to newcomers Billy Schuler and Joe Sofia highlighting two unusual pairings. And for that weekend’s closing match in Arizona, a 3-1 defeat at the hands of the Houston Dynamo, he employed the same gambit, as he shuffled up the sides and added returning U.S. national teamers Chris Wondolowski and Clarence Goodson to the mix.
“We want to mix up young and old, get guys playing with different guys,” explained Watson. “As we get closer to the start of the season, we will narrow it down to the starting eleven for the first game and spend more time fine tuning the team.”
The Quakes head coach has more than just an MLS season to prepare for, as his team also faces the start of a tough CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal series with Toluca in less than a month. Four days after facing the Liga MX side, San Jose hosts MLS Cup runners-up Real Salt Lake to kick-off the regular season. The mixing and matching strategy employed by Watson in filling out his preseason game-day lineups is no accident.
“Right now, we can let guys get to know each other, to build little partnerships and develop an understanding,” continued Watson. “It is good for the guys to learn to play with all of the players. To get to know their qualities so if that time comes when they play together they will have a bit more familiarity.”
In addition to their preseason schedule, the Quakes will play a number of training ground scrimmages as part of the team’s preparation. Last Wednesday, the Earthquakes welcomed Los Gatos based PSA Storm to their training facility for a 90-minute match. Next week, the Sonoma County Sol is scheduled to face the Quakes. Each game provides Watson with another opportunity to experiment with his line-up and see just where guys are halfway through the preseason.
“We have a bunch of good players all over the field, competing for spots,” said Watson. “These games are the first step in our preparation for the long season ahead. We want to get as many guys as possible on a full pitch and build up their fitness.”
This weekend’s match against the LA Galaxy, contested in Fresno and heralded as the Central California Cup, will provide the sternest test to date for San Jose. And if the pattern in selecting the squad follows that established in the first round of games, fans should expect to see a starting combination of players that may end up completely different by mid March. After all, the Earthquakes coach realizes only pride is on the line against their So Cal rivals.
“Overall, we have been happy with what we have done so far,” said Watson. “The focus has been more on the fitness side of things, but it hasn’t really been much of an assessment of the soccer. We will start putting those pieces into place now.”
It’s not results in preseason that catapult teams into the MLS Cup playoffs nearly ten months away, but rather the effective ramping up of preparations that can lead to regular season success. And win or lose against the Galaxy on Saturday — though a win would certainly be the preferred outcome — Watson and his coaching staff have the team moving in the right direction.