After coming within a game of MLS Cup in 2010, the San Jose Earthquakes felt at the beginning of this past season they were closer to a third MLS title than they ever had since being reborn in 2008.
It didn’t quite turn out that way.
The Quakes opened the year in a 1-4-2 tailspin and, despite a brief interlude that saw them get back into sixth place in the Western Conference, a team-record 13-match winless streak in league play – stretching from June 11 to Sept. 10 – finished off any hopes San Jose had of getting back into the playoff picture.
Injuries were an undeniable problem, but the Quakes also simply weren’t as efficient at finishing off games as they had been a year earlier – San Jose finished 16th out of 18 clubs in terms of winning percentage after scoring first.
Best Moment of the Year
Seeing Chris Wondolowski tie Dwayne De Rosario for the league lead in scoring with a 34th-minute penalty kick in the Quakes’ final game, a 4-2 home win against FC Dallas on Oct. 22. San Jose fans never got a chance to properly celebrate Wondolowski’s Golden Boot victory in 2010, since he scored his final goal in Kansas City, then had to outwait the LA Galaxy’s Edson Buddle. This time, they reveled in Wondolowski’s success, even if he didn’t manage to claim a second straight award (De Rosario won on the assists tie-breaker).
Worst Moment of the Year
When Quakes forward Steven Lenhart had a pair of breakaway chances against Vancouver goalkeeper Joe Cannon and couldn’t put either on net – dispossessed by recovering defenders in the first instance, pushing a shot wide in the second – it spoke to the depth of the 25-year-old’s continuing pain and anguish over the death of his father. Lenhart left the team after that contest, and the club announced a couple weeks later that he was on an indefinite family leave of absence. He did not appear for the Quakes again all season, and San Jose slid to a 3-6-5 finish.
For a team that languished near the bottom of the charts in terms of total goals, there are a surprising number of candidates here, but the winner came from an unlikely source. Rookie goalkeeper David Bingham, making his first-team debut in an international friendly against English Premier League side West Bromwich Albion on July 13, became a million-hit YouTube sensation in the third minute when he launched a long pass from the edge of his own box. The ball bounced over the head of sun-blinded Baggies ‘keeper Boaz Myhill and into the net for a stunning 90-yard strike.
With Jon Busch making a league-leading 113 stops, there’s no shortage of possibilities. The nod goes to an 84th-minute sequence from the Quakes’ 2-2 tie with New York on July 2, a nationally televised game played in front of 41,028 fans at Stanford Stadium. First, Busch had to sprint off his line after his back line was laid bare by some precise Red Bulls passing and brush aside a 15-yard attempt from the wide-open Dane Richards. Four seconds later, Busch had just managed to scramble back to his net before having to make a diving, leaping deflection on Joel Lindpere’s blast from the edge of the box.
A two-horse race once Lenhart departed, with Wondolowski and Busch doing their best to anchor the team at either end of the pitch. In the end, Wondolowski’s late rush – scoring six times in the Quakes’ final five matches – pushed him over the top.
Lenhart’s shortened season opened the door in this category to 23-year-old midfielder Simon Dawkins, who came to Northern California on a one-year loan deal from EPL power Tottenham Hotspur. Dawkins’ promising career in England had been derailed by injury, and though he did have to go on the shelf in a couple of instances during 2011, he accomplished enough in his 1,773 minutes to leave fans suitably impressed, scoring six goals (second on the team) and dishing out two assists.
1. Get a target forward or two. The Quakes took care of this, at least in part, when they announced Wednesday that Lenhart had re-signed with the club. San Jose’s best stretch of the season, a 4-0-2 burst in May and June, came with Lenhart at the tip of the spear, and even if coach Frank Yallop continues to search for more of a possession-based, passing game, they still need that longball club in the bag. The team is also expected to make a run at bringing back veteran target man Alan Gordon, who was acquired in a midseason trade from Toronto FC to help fill in for Lenhart only to be knocked out by season-ending surgery.
2. Solve the right-wing carousel. Yallop tried eight different players at right midfield over the course of the year, and none of them really took the job and made it their own. Ideally, the Quakes would love to find a speed burner to use in this spot and provide a defense-stretching presence in the manner of New York’s Dane Richards. Gambian teen Omar Jasseh was signed last year with hopes of being that player, but never progressed and was cut midseason. On Wednesday, the team announced it had traded allocation money to Vancouver in exchange for former Quakes winger Shea Salinas. San Jose also brought in Trindad and Tobago youth international Cordell Cato for much of October as an extended audition for 2012.
3. Build a team in January, not June. Bobby Convey, the team’s highest-paid player, has been dealt to Sporting KC. And oft-injured André Luiz’s guaranteed years are up. That means San Jose will have plenty of money – and plenty of space freed up this winter. Yallop, general manager John Doyle and team president David Kaval are all in agreement that the club wants to have its best players in place from March on, rather than waiting for the midsummer window to add talent.