With SJ needing goals, rookie Luzunaris bides his time

Matt Luzunaris

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — There are plenty of reasons why the San Jose Earthquakes, who led MLS in scoring back in mid-June, now rank ahead of only Toronto FC in terms of goals per game.

At or near the top has to be the fact that the 2011 Quakes have fared better — much, much better — with a legitimate target man in their lineup. In 1,270 minutes with either Steven Lenhart or Alan Gordon on the pitch, San Jose have scored 19 goals this season, for an average of 1.35 per 90 minutes. In 1,070 minutes without those two, the Quakes have generated just eight goals, a drop of more than 50 percent to just 0.67 scores per 90 minutes.

Lenhart (personal leave) and Gordon (surgery) remain unavailable for the immediate future, but coach Frank Yallop nonetheless isn’t ready to throw his lot in with MLS rookie Matt Luzunaris — the last healthy man remaining on San Jose’s roster with anything approximating the kind of skill set that Lenhart and Gordon bring to the pitch.

San Jose equalize vs. TFC
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When San Jose (5-10-11) host Chicago on Saturday (10:30 pm ET; watch LIVE online), it’s likely the forward pairing will once again feature typical midfielder Khari Stephenson alongside leading scorer Chris Wondolowski. Luzunaris and fellow MLS newcomer Ellis McLoughlin, another young forward, figure to come off the bench.

“It’s never easy, because you usually go with what you know,” Yallop said. “When you’re still fighting for a playoff spot and trying to win, you tend to pick what you think is your strongest team. And I still think Khari’s done a nice job up front, Simon [Dawkins] has obviously scored [four] goals in this league and is a good player. Wondo scored 18 last year and now he has nine this season. To not play those guys and then play [a rookie] — and it’s a game where maybe he doesn’t play well — it’s tough on those guys.”

Luzunaris did get an opportunity to play in the Quakes’ most recent contest, against TFC on Aug. 27, and it was only after his 83rd-minute insertion that San Jose came up with an equalizing goal in the 87th from Wondolowski.

The Quakes were obviously throwing everyone forward in a last-ditch attempt to salvage a point, but Luzunaris’ near-post run on a long throw-in from the left wing by Jacob Peterson helped drag TFC’s back line out of shape, and when Bobby Burling flicked on the throw, Wondolowski was left alone at the back post to capitalize.

“We needed a little boost,” Luzunaris said of his insertion, only his fourth appearance of the season. “I think that I have a lot of energy to offer to the team. I think that I make the runs that some guys may not be able to make. And I feel like when I came on, it definitely helped the team and kind of gave them a boost of energy.”

The 22-year-old Luzunaris, who joined the Quakes this year after three seasons in Austria, bides his time in the interim, waiting for an opportunity to make his first MLS start.

“I’m here hustling every day, hustling in practice and working hard,” Luzunaris said. “At the end of the day, it’s up to the coaches. If they feel that I’m ready to play, then I’m ready to get that call.”

Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at sanjosequakes@gmail.com