San Jose Earth­quakes 2014 Season Preview

After shocking the MLS by winning the Supporters Shield trophy in 2012, the San Jose Earthquakes suffered a major let down in 2013.

Stumbling out of the gate to a 3-6-6 start, the injury riddled Quakes sacked two-time MLS Coach of the Year, Frank Yallop.  His successor, assistant coach Mark Watson, led to the team to a strong finish tallying a 11-5-3 record, and going on a nine game unbeaten streak to end the season.

On the final day of play, the Earthquakes tied for the fifth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, but having scored less goals than the Colorado Rapids, lost the playoff tiebreaker.

Watson returns in 2014 for his first full season as an MLS manager. Joining him are many familiar faces that populated both the 2012 and 2013 squads, plus a few notable European acquisitions.

An impressive showing in the CONCACAF Champions League on Tuesday, albeit against a weakened Toluca side, gives hope that the Quakes might have some carryover from last season’s stellar finish.

Additions: Y. Djalo, A. Gorlitz, K. Stephenson,S. Francis, B. Barklage, J. Pierazzi, A. Harris, B. Schuler, T. Thompson, B Meredith, J.J. Koval,

Losses: R. Corrales, N. Attakora, D. Gargan, M. Ballouchy, M. Chavez, J. Morrow, R. Baca, S. Beitashour

Coaching:  There’s really no way around it, the Earthquakes played much better after Mark Watson took over for Frank Yallop mid-season. The Canadian legend impressed enough to be hired full-time during the winter. With less than 30 games under his belt the jury is still out, but a full season should be a good barometer for what Watson can get out of this squad.

Defense: The back line is where the Quakes see the most roster turnover from last season.  The loss of full-backs Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour seemed significant at the time and may prove to be.  But with the acquisition of highly touted German right-back Andres Gorlitz, and the return of 2013 stand out left-back Jordan Stewart, the Quakes actually have the potential improve on the outside.

The center should be as stout as ever, with top tier center-back pairing Victor Bernardez and US International Clarence Goodson returning as the likely starters, with the highly capable Jason Hernandez filling in.  Replicating their performance from last season’s end —only two goals allowed in nine games — might be a stretch, but depending on how things play out, the Earthquakes have a back line that could be one of the strongest units in the Western Conference.

Midfield: Monday marked the signing of the new attacking player Earthquakes fans had been waiting for.  Portuguese winger Yannick Djalo joined the club on loan from Benfica this week, and should be available for the teams season opener Saturday according to Watson.

Djalo might have the European pedigree to seem like a shoo-in start, but the elevated play of the Quakes current wingers might make for an interesting next few weeks.

Left-midfielder Shea Salinas, provided the key assist on Tuesday, and had a career high 7 assists in all competitions last season.  While Cordell Cato’s man-of-the-match performance has elevated his profile as a potential starting option.

The ever solid Sam Cronin will team up with new Italian arrival Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi in the center of the midfield, with newcomers Atiba Harris and rookie J.J. Koval to provide the depth.  Depending on the form of Djalo, the Quakes may be forced to relegate a talented midfielder to the bench, a problem the club would not mind having.

Forwards: Chris Wondolowski returns looking to get back to his incredible 2012 form after a down 2013 campaign.  Wondo is still a top five striker in the MLS, and with him returns the entire strikeforce from last season, including bruising stalwarts Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon.

Wondolowski’s decreased production last year was a key factor in the Earthquakes low goal tally of 35 — second to last in the West. This came just one year after topping the MLS with a whopping 72, and a Golden Boot for Wondo who notched 27.

Relying so heavily on one player to create chances is never ideal.  The lack of consistent goal scorers means Wondolowski’s contribution is a huge factor in the Quakes productivity, and leaves San Jose with their biggest question marks up front.

The Earthquakes are probably the biggest enigma in the Western Conference. The return of their core from last year’s middling side is also the same core that held the best record in the league in 2012. The three European acquisitions, who are all looking to break the starting eleven, are moves in the right direction. And with the loss of only one everyday starter, Beitashour, the Quakes will surely feel they can improve on last season’s forgettable showing.

The Earthquakes away form will be a key component in 2014.  The Quakes are riding a 20-game unbeaten streak at Buck Shaw Stadium, but their 3-10-4 road record crippled the club’s playoff chances last year.

If the Quakes can turn around their away performance, return a rejuvenated Wondolowski and get significant contributions from newcomers like Djalo, San Jose should be disappointed to not have a playoff spot secured come November.