SANTA CLARA, Calif. – San Jose Earthquakes coach Frank Yallop gave nothing away with the sides he created for the club’s 10-vs.-10 scrimmage at practice Thursday, splitting his available returning starters nearly evenly between the two groups.
That was only fitting, given how much of the Quakes’ lineup is in flux heading into San Jose’s top-of-the-West tilt with Real Salt Lake on Saturday (10:30 pm ET, watch LIVE online).
There are three sure things: center back Victor Bernardez (sprained left knee ligament) and wingers Marvin Chavez (suspended) and Shea Salinas (broken left collarbone) will all miss the match.
Barring a late injury or anything out of the ordinary, goalkeeper Jon Busch will start, but in front of him, question marks begin to pile up quickly.
In the midfield, Simon Dawkins is expected to start on the left wing in place of Salinas after helping spark the Quakes’ attack in Salinas’ absence druing the second half against New York last weekend. Yallop said he’s considering two options to fill in for Chavez along the opposite sideline: Rafael Baca or Sam Garza.
GOAL: Baca nets his first of 2012
Moving Baca to the right wing would open up a slot for Colombian veteran Tressor Moreno – the club’s most prized offseason acquisition – to jump back into the starting XI as a playmaking central midfielder in front of Sam Cronin. But Baca’s industry and work rate in the middle has been a huge part of San Jose’s 4-1-1 start, and Yallop is loath to get away from something that’s been so successful to this point.
“You don’t really want to mess with him, a little bit,” Yallop admitted.
However, keeping Baca in his current spot means the Quakes would be giving Garza, an untested rookie, his first competitive MLS action with first place in the West on the line. RSL leads San Jose by two points, although the Quakes have a game in hand.
Along the backline, Jason Hernandez should step in for Bernardez, but partnering whom? The first choice is to keep team captain Ramiro Corrales on the left and allow Justin Morrow to stay inside, where he’s shone so far. But Corrales missed practice Thursday because of continued pain in his right calf – the same muscle that cramped and forced his 80th-minute exit last weekend against New York.
Adding to the intrigue, center back Ike Opara also sat out because of a tight hamstring. Although Yallop said he expected both players to be available Saturday, that depends in part on how they look at Friday’s training session.
Up top, the news is significantly improved: Target men Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon both participated fully Thursday, and look to be available on the weekend. The main question is whether Yallop feels comfortable throwing either Lenhart – who’s missed two straight matches with hamstring concerns – or Gordon -- who’s made just two appearances since August – right back into the fire, or if he’d rather stick with Khari Stephenson, who notched an assist last week against the Red Bulls.
Quakes to watch throw-ins more closely
If there’s been one weak spot in the Quakes’ defense thus far this year, it’s getting caught out of sorts by an opponent’s quick throw-in. Vancouver used one to set up their go-ahead goal two weeks ago, and the Red Bulls did the same last week.
“I don’t know what it is, if we’re thinking it’s relax time, or if we’re just not focused,” Quakes right back Steven Beitashour told MLSsoccer.com. “We need to figure that out and we need to stop letting that happen, that’s for sure. Once is pretty bad, but it shouldn’t be happening two games in a row.”
Against New York, Roy Miller’s toss was dummied by Dax McCarty, allowing Thierry Henry to run onto the ball and slide a pass to the wide-open Kenny Cooper, who tallied from 11 yards. Bernardez was caught in no-man’s land, never getting goalside of Cooper, and also never putting him offisdes.
“We’ve talked about it, and we’re going to watch it,” Yallop told MLSsoccer.com. “It’s just a matter of our willingness to get on the right side of people quicker. Or, if you’re going to play them offside, play them offside.”
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.