2014 San Jose Earthquakes Preview: Cage matches and injury curses for the Goonies | Armchair Analyst
100 percent Wondo: After tying the league record with 27 goals in the 2012 season, Chris Wondolowski got a fat new Designated Player contract and a subsequent drop in production. He banged home just 11 in 2013 as the Quakes went dry in front of net. Part of the reason was physical: He spent most of the year playing on a broken toe. He's healthy now, though, and started 2013 off in good form with a brace for the USMNT vs. South Korea.
Get up, get back: Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow are gone, with Jordan Stewart and a still-to-be-determined right back (Brandon Barklage is signed, and Andreas Gorlitz might be soon) the new starters. Stewart we know can get the job done – he displaced Morrow in the middle of last season, and was an immediate defensive upgrade. They'll probably want a little more forward thrust from the right side, because replacing Beitashour's production is not going to be easy.
Winning central midfield: Rafael Baca was a disappointment in 2013 after a very strong 2012, and as a result the Quakes were overrun in central midfield time and time again. That's always a risk in the 4-4-2, of course, but there's a way to avoid it: Win the second ball and move play out to the flanks ASAP. New man Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi will have that as the first item on his "gameday responsibilities" folio.
Star Attraction: Chris Wondolowski
One of the favorite pastimes for many US soccer fans and – unfortunately – some announcers/pundits is to harp on what Wondolowski can't do. He's not a tricky 1-v-1 player with the ball. He doesn't jump out of the gym. He's not blazingly fast. He rarely scores from outside the box. Obviously, this means he's just a poacher, right?
Wrong. Wondo's best athletic attribute is his balance, which just so happens to be the most important physical attribute in soccer. He's almost never wrong-footed, which means he can square himself to shoot faster than almost anyone in the league (watch in the GIF how quickly he's able to kill his momentum and get back around the ball).
It also means that the Quakes are comfortable playing to his feet in traffic, because he's comfortable taking contact and can still connect passes. Those who think San Jose's attack is all flick-ons and longballs need to watch a little closer. Wondo's not Landon Donovan or Federico Higuaín when it comes to chance creation, but of "pure" forwards in MLS, only Robbie Keane and Mike Magee created more last year.
But really, what makes Wondo special (and effective) is his off-the-ball movement. He is, as John Terry said in the 2012 All-Star Game, "a nightmare" for defenders.
Probable Formation: 4-4-2
GK: Jon Busch
RB: Brandon Barklage
CD: Clarence Goodson, Víctor Bernárdez
LB: Jordan Stewart
RM: Atiba Harris
DM: Sam Cronin
CM: Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi
LM: Shea Salinas
FWDs: Steven Lenhart, Chris Wondolowski
Major Acquisition: Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi
Pierazzi is in the prime of his career at 28, has played nearly 200 games in Ligue 1 & 2, and was a long-time captain of AC Ajaccio. Five years ago he would have been considered one of the offseason's biggest signings, but now he's flown way, way under the radar. Which is probably fine with the Quakes.
At 6-foot-1 he gives San Jose yet another set piece target, and while he doesn't cover a ton of ground in central midfield, he does cover enough. And more important, he's very good at limiting the space he leaves behind him (probably because he was bred as a true d-mid), which should take some of the strain off of San Cronin, who ran himself into the ground last year.
The Quakes are confident that he can be a pretty solid two-way threat – there have been comparisons from some corners of their front office to Michael Bradley, which seems a touch over-enthusiastic – despite the fact that he's scored just twice in his nine years as a pro.
Really though, that doesn't matter. San Jose scored 72 goals in 2012 by winning the second ball and getting it to the flanks as quickly as possible. If Pierazzi does that and nothing else, they'll be happy with him.
SEE MORE: Transaction page
What He Said
“We want lots of movement. … The way we play, with a target striker and Wondo kind of playing up front but underneath, I think the target striker will be the constant, and all the other guys – and I’ll include the fullbacks in that – [are] the variables.”
Fantasy Pick: Shea Salinas ($7.5m/ selected by 1.8 percent of teams) – San Jose don't have a favorable schedule to start the season. Add CCL midweek games into the mix and it gets even tougher. However, once the season gets going the Earthquakes are going to enjoy four double-game weeks. From Round 16-27 they have eight home games and two DGWs. Salinas has turned into one of the better crossers in MLS and he likely be taking set pieces and corners as well.
Players to watch: Chris Wondolowski, Cordell Cato, Steven Lenhart
I've mentioned set pieces just once so far in this preview, which I'm going to remedy here. The Quakes are set to be devastating on restarts. They might even return to the heights they hit in 2012.
In their probable starting lineup they've got Steven Lenhart, Clarence Goodson, Atiba Harris and Wondo, all of whom are A+ targets. They can then bring in Pierazzi and Víctor Bernárdez if they want to really cause some nightmares. And then throw on Alan Gordon for late-game cage fights. "Dominant" is a word that comes to mind.
So why didn't that work out last year? Injuries, primarily. Wondolowski's broken toe was actually less significant than the knocks that Lenhart and Gordon played with all season, which limited their effectiveness in battling central defenders both on and off the ball. Lenhart's antics and repeated suspensions didn't help much, either, nor did the injury bug that Shea Salinas – who will be one of the breakout players of the year if he can play 30ish games – battled from first kick onwards. With Marvin Chávez gone, keeping Salinas healthy is even more important now.
To Mark Watson's credit – and Goodson's – the Quakes redefined themselves as a defense-first team for the second half of 2013, conceding 10 times over their final 14 games. They went 9-2-3 and only just missed the playoffs.
So ... best-case scenario? That defensive toughness lives on into 2014 and the attack stays healthy. If that happens, they're a Shield contender. If it doesn't, I still think they make the playoffs. They have too many answers to stay home for a second straight November.