From the day he took the job on a permanent basis, head coach Mark Watson was clear on his belief that the San Jose Earthquakes needed to find some alternate avenues of attack after falling from a franchise-record 72 goals in 2012 to just 35 last season.
Yet with a pair of classic target men – Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart – still on the books and the addition of winger/forward Atiba Harris, who was targeted with the most aerial balls of any MLS player in 2013, how much change can the Quakes realistically undergo?
Plenty, insists Watson, who is using his club’s preseason schedule – which continues Saturday with a preseason match against the Houston Dynamo in the Desert Diamond Friendlies series – to hammer home new concepts of interchangeability in the Quakes’ previously rigid 4-4-2 setup.
“It’s about how your players play with each other,” Watson told reporters recently. “You can play very conventionally in a 4-4-2, or you can have tons of movement. I think formations are a good starting point; it’s about what you do from that starting point, in terms of how you bring players into play.
“We want lots of movement. … The way we play, with a target striker and [forward Chris Wondolowski] 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 full backs in that – [are] the variables.”
Movement will be the watchword for the Quakes, who already took a step in that direction by getting former AC Ajaccio captain Jean-Baptiste Pierrazzi to pair with Sam Cronin in the center of midfield. Where Cronin previously played more of a screening role behind Rafael Baca, the new duo will be sharing their duties more equitably, with either player able to get forward as circumstances warrant.
“We’ll work on moving the ball around a little bit, to hopefully slide some attacking players through, other than just, ‘Go wide and get the ball in the box,’” Watson said.
The wide play that characterized much of Frank Yallop’s tenure “will still be relevant,” Watson added. “I think when you look at our strikers, they need service. So it’s our job to get them service. We will look at a few other ways of doing that this year, though.”
San Jose’s goal in their opening preseason match, a 2-1 loss to the Seattle Sounders on Wednesday, featured some of both styles. The 86th-minute sequence began with second-year target man Adam Jahn dipping back to the midfield line to intercept a Sounders pass. Jahn quickly turned and played a leading ball for right-back trialist Andreas Gorlitz.
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As Jahn sprinted up field, Harris tucked in from the right wing and served as the target for Gorlitz’s deep cross into Seattle’s penalty area. After a bit of pinball, Harris regained control and fed Mike Fucito, who tucked his tightly angled shot just inside the far post.
That kind of cutting inside from the touchline is what the Quakes could be looking for with their remaining offseason target, even if that doesn’t mean bringing in a traditional No. 10 midfielder because that player would occupy the same space currently patrolled by Wondolowski, San Jose general manager John Doyle said.
What San Jose would dearly love is to find a midfielder with skills similar to those of former Quake Simon Dawkins, who scored 14 goals in 53 appearances for the club in 2011 and ‘12, many of them while swooping in from the left wing onto his more dominant right foot.
“You look at how Simon played in our team, somebody that can collect the ball, kind of pinch in so you’re maybe a little unbalanced,” Doyle said. “If we’re looking, that’s what we would be looking for, that type of player.”