BY MIKE DONOVAN
A dream 2012 season was followed by a nightmare start to the 2013 campaign, with the club winning just three times in their first 15 matches.
But when Mark Watson took over for the fired Frank Yallop in June, San Jose regained some of the form it has been lacking. With Watson overseeing the club, the Quakes won 11 of their final 19 matches, missing the playoffs on the goal difference tiebreaker. The club also advanced to the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League.
The first move San Jose made this offseason was shed the interim tag from Watson and name him the coach on a permanent basis.
While Watson provides a stabilizing presence at the head coaching spot, the club will be without the retired Ramiro Corrales for the first time since 2007. San Jose still has veterans like Chris Wondolowski and goalkeeper Jon Busch, however, to bring the team together as they try to use the end of last season as a springboard to the playoffs this year.
SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES SEASON PREVIEW
2013 FINISH: 14-11-9 (sixth place in Western Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: Jean-Baptiste Pierazzzi, Atiba Harris, Brandon Barklage, Shaun Francis, J.J. Koval, Billy Schuler, Tommy Thompson
KEY LOSSES: Ramiro Corrales, Steven Beitashour, Rafael Baca, Justin Morrow, Marvin Chavez, Mehdi Ballouchy, Dan Gargan, Nana Attakora, Jamie Alas, Sam Garza (loaned to the San Antonio Scorpians)
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi. The Quakes biggest offseason signing was the pickup of French defensive midfielder Pierazzi from AC Ajaccio. Pierazzi, who until this point, had played for his hometown club Ajaccio in Corsica for his entire career, is expected to add a hardened veteran presence to the center of the field for San Jose.
PRESSURE IS ON: Steven Lenhart. Since Rafael Marquez left MLS two years ago, Lenhart has taken over as the league’s top villain. At his best, Lenhart is a player who has a knack for getting under his opponent’s skin and then exploits their frustration by finding his way to open spaces in the penalty area. At his worst, however, Lenhart is a liability to his team, sometimes frustrating his team as much as opponents. If Lenhart is able to regain his 2012 form (ten goals), then the Quakes will worry little about his on-field eccentricities.
While Watson was the interim coach last season, he treated the job as if it was his from day one. And he approached this offseason, as if he wasn’t a new head coach at all.
“I’ve been in the job since June of last year, so it’s been business as usual,” Watson said.
The club will try to use that continuity from last season to enable them to make the playoffs after just missing out last season.
“The goal for us, at the very minimum, is to make the playoffs, we don’t want to look past that,” Sam Cronin said. “Make the playoffs and be in the position to make a run at it.”
Cronin is returning to his central midfield position with a new partner in Pierazzi, who takes over the spot held by Rafael Baca. Shea Salinas will start start on the left flank, with Atiba Harris potentially slotting in on the right wing.
After an unprecedented run of goal-scoring form (61 goals between 2010 and 2012), Chris Wondolowski notched “just” 11 goals in the 2013 campaign. While most strikers will take double-digit goals, Wondolowski will be looking to increase his production in 2014.
Wondolowski will likely be paired with Lenhart, who is the target in many long balls out of the back. While not always attractive to watch, Lenhart has a penchant for winning battles in the air and creating spaces for Wondolowski to run off. Adam Jahn and Alan Gordon provide decent depth up top, something that will be needed with the Champions League quarterfinals matchup with Toluca in March.
At the back, the Quakes have one of the best centerback pairings in the league with Victor Bernardez and Clarence Goodson. Goodson’s addition midway through last season coincided with San Jose’s upswing in form. Behind them is goalkeeper Jon Busch, who needs two shutouts to move into third-place all-time for shutouts by MLS goalkeepers.
If Pierazzi is able to form a stable partnership with Cronin and the attacking corps behind Wondolowski is able to stay on the field, then San Jose will challenge for a playoff spot in the crowded Western Conference.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
I predict another season of boring, “college-style” long ball for my Quakes.
If Pierazzi is a defensive midfielder, why do you project him to play in front of Cronin?