Shrader: Defending the title

and history has proved it to be so -- then the San Jose Earthquakes are in pretty darn good shape one-sixth of the way into the season, despite their 1-2-2 record.

A handful of back-line injuries have caused head coach Dominic Kinnear to start different combinations of defenders this year, and still, they've given up only five goals in five games. The Quakes have allowed more than one goal in only one game, the 2-1 season-opening loss to D.C. United.

At the other end of the field, the Quakes have had a number of problems getting enough balls into the back of the net to win. One of their five goals came on a penalty kick, another came from a free kick (in Saturday's 1-1 draw with United), and the other three goals were scored in a span of 23 minutes on April 17 in a 3-1 victory at New England.

As disappointing as this lack of offense may be, it's not really baffling. This team may be defending its Major League Soccer title, but a new year brings new dynamics, even with a roster that includes nearly all the same players. Landon Donovan could partner with any of the following up front: Dwayne De Rosario, Brian Ching, Jamil Walker or Chris Brown. And with Donovan off to occasional national team duty, any of the other forwards will be required to form a partnership.

If you watched the USA beat Mexico, 1-0, on April 28, you saw the brilliance that is Landon Donovan. That was as good a performance as the U.S. team has had in a while, and Donovan was the best player on the field. Period. Fans watch Donovan play with the Quakes and would like to see that every night, but it's not as simple as that. Donovan right now serves two masters and he's doing the best he can, while Kinnear is doing the best he can to make sure everybody wins.

"We're trying to watch him and rest him as much as we can in those off days," Kinnear says. "We know the U.S. team is important and he's important to us here. It could be down to fatigue and we rely on him a lot. I thought that Landon and Brian Ching worked very well together in the first half against D.C. United Saturday."

In the second half against D.C., the Quakes weren't quite as sharp. Donovan appeared to be tired from last week's trip to Dallas for the game against Mexico and Ching is still getting fit after last season's devastating Achilles injury. Throw in some decent goalkeeping, some bad luck, 85-degree temps and you end up with a 1-1 game.

Expect to see as much of the Donovan-Ching duo as is possible, with De Rosario and Walker waiting in the wings. Ching does a great job of winning and holding the ball, allowing Donovan to run off him. While Donovan appears to be a natural No. 10, playing behind two forwards on the U.S. national team, you likely won't see much of that with the Quakes. He is a forward here, with the midfield attack coming from the wings along with the hard-hat work done by Richard Mulrooney and Ronnie Ekelund in the middle. Kinnear puts out a 4-4-2 attack every night. Everybody in this league knows it and few teams ever put in a better effort day in and day out.

Discipline is the name of the game with the Quakes and it'll be that discipline that gets them over the hump of a season-opening stretch during which they've scored three goals from the run of play in five games.

America's soccer savior?
We got our first look at the Freddy Adu tour Saturday in Spartan Stadium. By most accounts, Adu held his own, though he was by no means the best player on the field. While ESPN2 spent most of its pregame show talking about the 14-year-old wunderkind's first start, Eric Wynalda was suggesting at halftime that Adu may need to be subbed in the second half. The upside is awesome, but the kid has a lot to learn.

Kinnear takes umbrage at the notion that Adu is the "savior" of American soccer.

"I think we all know that he is not because it doesn't come down to just one player," he said. "It is kind of nice for other guys, because Freddy has taken a lot of the pressure off of them. People don't talk about Landon as much as they used to, though they should."

Western Conference wide open
With Dallas clearly improved, L.A. re-energized and all five teams competitive, it will be a wide-open race for the Western Conference title in 2004. Through the first five weeks of the season, three points separate the five teams. Don't expect that to change throughout the year.

John Shrader has been the voice of the Earthquakes since 1996 and has worked in television and radio in the Bay Area for the past 20 years.

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