Many people expected the San Jose Earthquakes to be an improved side this season, but maybe not quite this improved. The Bay Area outfit has been the darling of the season’s first two months, compiling an impressive 6-1-1 record heading into the month of May.
Chris Wondolowski has been lethal in the penalty area and the lack of possession that plagued the side in 2011 seems to be behind them. We caught up with Geoff Lepper, MLSsoccer.com’s San Jose Earthquakes beat writer, about the job Frank Yallop has done instilling a possession-based mentality and Wondolowski’s chances to nab the Golden Boot.
Fantasy Spotlight: In terms of overall performances, what's the biggest difference between last season and this season?
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Geoff Lepper: The biggest thing is that the Quakes are dominating in the midfield. There was a fair amount of snickering in preseason last year when Frank Yallop talked about playing more possession-based soccer, and the Quakes abandoned that plan early after a rough start.
By the end of the season, however, San Jose rode that approach to a 3-2-3 finish immediately after suffering through a franchise-record, 13-match winless streak. With Marvin Chávez, Tressor Moreno and Shea Salinas added to the mix, and Simon Dawkins back to bolster the midfield, San Jose are now more able to impose their will on the game from that area, rather than having to try to skip over it as much as possible.
FS: Is there any reason Chris Wondolowski won't continue to challenge for the Golden Boot standings?
Lepper: Only the law of averages. Wondolowski hasn’t had a significant injury since rejoining the Quakes in 2009 and unless he gets hurt, it’s hard to see how he doesn’t get to 15 or more goals.
FS: Aside from Wondolowski, who do you believe is the next most valuable player on the Earthquakes?
Lepper: I think Chávez wins by a nose. The Quakes were totally bereft of speed on the flanks last year, and moved to address that by picking up Chávez and Salinas. Chávez has been outstanding – see his two sparkling assists over the weekend – and he’s surprised his teammates with his defensive work rate.
That said, you could easily make a case for Rafael Baca, Steven Beitashour, Justin Morrow, Steven Lenhart or Víctor Bernárdez. It’s a deep, talented roster, something San Jose were determined to build after being decimated by injuries and absences last year.
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FS: What does Wondolowski say about playing alongside Steven Lenhart? Lenhart certainly seems to be causing problems for opposing defenses and got a couple goals this past weekend.
Lepper: Wondolowski can and will score alongside almost anyone, but Lenhart is clearly the best option as a strike partner. Most of the debate about Lenhart centers on his ability to drive opponents nuts with his antics – the Josh Saunders incident from last year still boggles the mind – but that really masks the fact that he’s arguably as talented an aerial scorer as there is in MLS right now.
When you loft a cross into the mixer, Lenhart’s got great timing, strength and desire to get a head on it. Plus, the floppy blond curls make it easy for teammates to pick him out of a crowd.
FS: Rafael Baca has been getting some press for his strong work in midfield this year. How much confidence does Yallop have in him and is he going to be playing 90 minutes every match?
Lepper: Baca is a huge reason for the Quakes’ success. He lines up as the point of the diamond in San Jose’s midfield, with Sam Cronin lying deep in front of the back four, but Baca isn’t confined to simply being an attacking presence. He’s very much a box-to-box midfielder who never stops running, and his willingness and ability to rapidly change the point of attack from sideline to sideline helps San Jose immensely.
He’s not as effective on the right wing, where he’s played in three matches so far, but Yallop would rather have him out there then on the bench, and rightfully so.
The only problem is that it makes it hard to find a spot for Moreno, who doesn’t have the speed to play wide. Of course, if your biggest concern is not being able to get talented guys in the starting XI, you’re doing pretty well.