2015 Earthquakes preview: A season of change

In a matter of three seasons, the San Jose Earthquakes have gone from first to worst in the Western Conference. The 2012 Supporters Shield-winning squad was supposed to signal the beginning of a renewed era of success, but instead preceded a steady and steep decline.

The 2014 season was a bottoming out for the Earthquakes, with the club falling into a season ending tailspin extreme enough to send first-year coach Mark Watson packing before the final game. Watson’s shortcomings, combined with numerous injuries and a squad lacking in depth, provided a perfect storm of below average soccer for the Earthquake’s final season at Buck Shaw Stadium.

The opening of Avaya Stadium signals a new era for the Earthquakes, who now have their first exclusive home, but the club will hope it also signals a new era of on-field success. With former coach Dominic Kinnear back at the helm, 2015 is a season of change in more ways than one.

With a new collective bargaining agreement settled, the Quakes will open as scheduled on Saturday at the Chicago Fire. Here’s a breakdown of what the club looks like entering the new season:

Coaching

Mark Watson out, Dominic Kinnear in. Watson began his coaching career in promising fashion in 2013, going 11-5-3 in his first 19 games and almost securing an improbable playoff birth while serving in an interim basis following the mid-season firing of predecessor Frank Yallop.

Watson’s performance as a full time manager in 2014, however, was an unmitigated disaster. He not only fielded a team that finished dead last in scoring, but finished his tenure on a 13-game winless streak with the team scoring two goals in the final five matches under Watson.

Injury and roster issues aside, Watson was in charge of the worst Earthquakes team in at least 15 years, and was predictably fired before the season finale.

In steps Dominic Kinnear, who now has the distinction of being the only coach in MLS history to be signed by the same team consecutively, while winning championships for another.

Kinnear was hired as the San Jose head coach in 2004, after serving as an assistant on two MLS Cup winning teams. After the franchise moved to Houston in 2005, Kinnear coached the Dynamo for the next nine seasons, winning two more MLS cups and finishing second twice.

The acquisition is a clear upgrade for two reasons. Firstly, San Jose is bringing in one of the winningest coaches in MLS history, who has suffered a mere two losing seasons in his 11-year coaching career. Second, change for San Jose can only be beneficial, as barring an unforeseen team wide illness, the Earthquakes would be hard pressed to put out a more dismal product than last year no matter who steps in.

While Kinnear’s teams are known for slow buildup in the midfield areas, this team already looks faster in preseason than they did last year. Upon his hiring, Kinnear said he believed last year’s team sat back far too often, something that last year’s tally of 35 goals in 34 games reinforces.

The Quakes should improve with Kinnear at the helm. Whether they can seriously compete for a playoff spot in an even tougher Western Conference, remains to be seen.

Goalkeeping & Defense

Notable additions: Paulo Renato (Operário), Marvell Wynne (Colorado Rapids),

Notable departures: Jon Busch (Chicago Fire), Jason Hernandez (New York City FC), Andreas Gorlitz

2014 standout: Jon Busch – 138 saves (best in MLS; club record)

The Earthquakes elected to part ways with club stalwart Jon Busch this offseason, fresh off the heels of setting the club record single-season saves. The decision not to re-sign the 38-year old stemmed not from performance, but from the Quakes’ belief in David Bingham, the 25-year old generation Adidas graduate who’s been waiting in the wings since 2011, and whom San Jose signed to a new contract this offseason.

With five total MLS appearances in that time, Bingham is almost completely unproven, though he did impress with stints in San Antonio and for Second Division Norwegian side Strømmen IF on separate loan spells last season.

Where Busch’s strength lied in his ability to make incredible reaction saves, Bingham is known for his aggression coming out of the box. Communication issues can often be a problem for young goalkeepers, but the veteran back line should help speed up the acclimation process.  It should also hopefully alleviate some of the pressure to bail the team out with incredible saves, something Busch was forced to do in nearly every game last season.

Defensively the Quakes remain consistent, assuming Clarence Goodson can stay healthy. Paired with Bernardez, they make for one of the strongest center-back units in MLS. Ty Harden will provide depth as will Paulo Renato (Trialist No. 1), who stood out in a good way during the recent preseason victory over Los Angles.

San Jose filled their hole at right-back with Marvell Wynne, who played well in 29 matches for Colorado last year. Wynne appears to have won the job over Brandon Barklage and Pablo Pintos, the latter of which is gone after six appearances and a red card. Wynne has looked good thus far, but how much of an upgrade he is at last year’s weakest position remains to be seen.

Left back remains the same with Jordan Stewart entering the season as the starter. Though not very ambitious going forward, Stewart did link up well with Shea Salinas down the left flank, leading to a majority of the Earthquakes scoring chances last year. The position isn’t necessarily a strength for San Jose, but is steady enough to feel content.

Midfield

Notable acquisitions: Leandro Barerra (Chivas USA), Sanna Nyassi (Chicago Fire), Fatai Alashe (SuperDraft)

Notable departures: Atiba Harris (FC Dallas), Yannick Djalo (loan ended), Sam Cronin (Trade – Colorado Rapids)

While the Earthquakes didn’t have many strengths aside from Busch last season, their greatest weakness was probably the uninspired play of the midfield. Part of that falls on Watson, who’s decision to pair two defensive minded central midfielders, Sam Cronin and Jean Baptiste Pierazzi, often left the midfield positioned too deep.

San Jose was completely without a central attacking midfielder for much of 2014, with midseason acquisition, and designated player, Matias Perez Garcia only appearing in six matches. Perez Garcia will get a chance to show if he’s worth the lucrative contract this season, and is the most likely candidate to fill the top of the midfield diamond, should Kinnear elect to use that formation.

Who else will start centrally isn’t completely clear, but Pierazzi will probably start from the outset despite having an up and down debut season. The Frenchman seemed to play at a much higher level when paired with the attack minded Khari Stephenson, and the Quakes are hoping Pierazzi can duplicate the same success with the very attacking Perez Garcia.

Second-year players JJ Koval and 19-year-old Tommy Thompson are the two other options, but I expect both to start in reserve roles and be rotated into the squad as the season rolls along.  Koval is versatile enough to play an attacking position or center back, and is the likelier bet of the two to start with the question mark Pierazzi in front of him. Of course a 4-2-3-1 or 3-5-2 formation could see Koval and Pierazzi paired together, with Perez Garcia as a center attacking midfielder.

Thompson, a true attacking midfielder, will unlikely get selected over Perez Garcia, but his versatility as a wing or forward option increases his chances of playing with the first team. Both are players of the future and should see increased playing time from last year.

San Jose also brought in two other attacking options in Barerra and Nyassi, one of which will likely start on the right wing opposite Shea Salinas, who was far and away the most productive midfield player for San Jose in 2015. Barerra has looked the most impressive of the two but Nyassi looked good in the final preseason match despite still lacking a quality final ball.

With a healthy Perez Garcia, and increased athletic wing options, it’s hard to see how San Jose hasn’t upgraded the attacking capability of last year’s uninspired midfield. While the top choices in this part of the field are less clear, having options is a luxury that San Jose did not have in 2014.

They should undoubtably be easier on the eye, but this group will ultimately be judged on whether or not they can cultivate a significant increase the team’s scoring opportunities.

Forwards

Key additions: Mark Sherrod (Houston Dynamo), Innocent Emeghara (Qarabag Agdam)

Key departures: Billy Schuler

2014 Standout: Chris Wondolowski – 14 goals, 4 assists, 3 shots per game (9th highest in MLS)

Coming off 14 goals in 20 appearances during 2014, Chris Wondolowski remains the Earthquakes’ best overall player, and one of the most reliable strikers in MLS. He didn’t have much help last year as the focal point of an attack that averaged a measly 3.7 shots on target per game, second lowest in the league. San Jose also finished second to last in goals scored with 35, the worst tally in club history.

Unlike last year, the Quakes have brought in what they believe is a second top-tier strike option to pair with Wondo, in Swiss international, and designated player, Innocent Emeghara.

Though only 25 years old, Emeghara has already played for seven professional clubs, with stints in France, Italy and Azerbajan. Know for his speed, Emeghara has been a solid but not quite prolific goal scorer throughout his career. Still a relative unknown, Emeghara, like Perez Garcia, will have to prove that he is worthy of the designated player title and contract.

Depth at forward is better this season, with target forwards Steven Lenhart and Adam Jahn also available. Lenhart played well last year before the knee surgery he’s still recovering from, and Jahn has been tearing things up in the preseason, scoring seven goals after spending much of 2014 in Sacramento.

Add Mark Sherrod, a Kinnear second-round draft pick in 2014 who has shown flashes in limited playing time, and you have what looks to be a much better circumstances than the Wondolowski-or-bust situation from last season.

With injuries continuing to sideline Lenhart and Sherrod, the bulked-up Adam Jahn looks like the number three option heading into the season. Even though cracking the starting lineup looks like a tall task for striker not named Wondolowski or Emeghara, if Jahn’s form extends to the regular season, Kinnear won’t have a choice but to play him.

Keys to the 2015 Earthquakes season

  • The Bernardez and Goodson partnership staying healthy and strong
  • Emeghara and Perez Garcia playing like designated players
  • Young players like Thompson, Koval and Jahn continuing to improve

Prediction: The Earthquakes nab the sixth and final Western Conference playoff spot.


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