By VINCE MADURI
The San Jose Earthquakes enjoyed a dream season in 2012, blowing away all expectations on their way to a Supporters Shield-winning season, led by Chris Wondolowski’s record-setting scoring campaign.
Despite their success though, there are question marks about whether the Earthquakes can duplicate, or even improve upon, that success. Their penchant for late-game heroics made them a thrilling team to watch, but they will go from the hunter to the hunted in 2013, no longer benefit from low expectations and underestimating from opponents.
The keys to the team’s success were a plethora of signings that paid big dividends, most notably the arrivals of Victor Bernardez and Marvin Chavez, as well as the emergence of Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart.
Heading into this season, the Earthquakes have been able to keep the core of the roster together to make another run at the Shield and at the MLS Cup, but the absence of Simon Dawkins, who is with Aston Villa now, will certainly hurt the Earthquakes.
Here is a closer look at the San Jose Earthquakes ahead of the 2013 MLS season:
SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES SEASON PREVIEW
2012 FINISH: 19-6-9, 66 points (First in Western Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: D Ty Harden, D Dan Gargan, F Mike Fucito, D Tommy Muller, M Dan Delgado, F Marcus Tracy, D Nana Attakora, D Peter McGlynn
KEY LOSSES: D Ike Opara, M Simon Dawkins, M Khari Stephenson, D/M Joey Gjertsen, D Tim Ward
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: D Tommy Muller – It is going to be difficult for any newcomer to crack San Jose’s lineup because the club managed to keep the large majority of their regulars from last year with maybe three exceptions in Opara, Dawkins and Stephenson. But of any of the newcomers, Muller has the highest ceiling and potential. As San Jose is asked to spread the roster out thinner this year with CONCACAF Champions League now a part of the schedule, Muller should receive minutes at the very least in the regional competition. Plus, if Bernardez attracts interest this summer or in later transfer windows as expected, Muller may end up the eventual replacement.
THE PRESSURE IS ON: M Marvin Chavez – Until a suitable replacement is found for Simon Dawkins, Chavez will need to be just as effective, if not more so, than he was last season when the wide midfielder assisted 13 times.
San Jose is going to be lead once again by forward Chris Wondolowski, but the forward shouldn’t need to break the league record in goals again for the Earthquakes to be successful. The club has developed a terrific set of attacking reinforcements that help lift the pressure off Wondolowski.
The “Bash Brothers” Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon serve as a good balance to play off of Wondolowski, doing the dirty work so the record-breaking forward can find the space necessary.
Marvin Chavez came to northern California last year looking for a change of scenery. What he got was a revitalization, finishing third in the league in assists with 13 and adding three goals of his own across 27 appearances for San Jose. With Simon Dawkins gone, Chavez will be tasked even more with the creating burden until a suitable replacement is found. Shea Salinas should also be given a bigger responsibility after starting the 2012 season in such promising fashion before a broken collarbone derailed the early part of the season.
Defensively, Victor Bernardez was a revelation for the Earthquakes last year, emerging as an MLS Best XI defender. His ability to dominate physically, while also providing surprising skill on the ball for a big man, made him the complete centerback and the perfect player to build around. Jason Hernandez provides some speed and athleticism as Bernardez’s centerback partner, which the team offset the departure of Ike Opara by drafting Tommy Muller and signing Nana Attakora.
The full backs are Americans Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour. Both had very solid seasons in 2012 and will look to build on that success. Beitashour will start the season on the injured list, but veteran Dan Gargan has been signed to provide depth at right back.
The question for San Jose is going to be how this team holds up over several competitions with the addition of Champions League to the schedule. On paper, the Earthquakes have a team capable of competing on two fronts, with the central midfield pairing of Sam Garza and Rafael Baca in the midfield and standouts like Wondolowski, Chavez and Bernardez giving the team quality all over the field. The addition of players like Attakora, Gargan and Mike Fucito should help give the team some more depth, but the Earthquakes still might struggle to match last year’s success given the heavier load the team will carry on the schedule this year.