With the New England Revolution set to take on the San Jose Earthquakes in San Jose tomorrow night, The Bent Musket caught up with Quakes blogger Robert Jonas to discuss what we can expect in this West Coast vs. East Coast battle. You can find more of Robert's work at the SB Nation Quakes blog, Quake, Rattle & Goal.
Perhaps because they're "out of sight, out of mind," San Jose feels like a team that didn't get a whole lot of high-profile press this offseason. With that in mind, who would you say were some of the key acquisitions the Quakes made that will help them get better this season? Who have they lost that you feel they might not be able to replace?
The roster makeover that Head Coach Frank Yallop and General Manager John Doyle undertook following the end of the 2011 season was immense, and will be immediately apparent in the line-up the Earthquakes field on Saturday. Bringing back the big instigator Steven Lenhart at forward was a primary goal of the San Jose brain trust going into the offseason. When Lenhart was paired with Chris Wondolowski last season - something that seldom happened due to a variety of causes - opposing defenses were left with a tough choice on whom to focus their efforts. Couple the Lenhart-Wondo forward duo with the addition of speedy wingers Shea Salinas from Vancouver Whitecaps FC and Marvin Chavez from FC Dallas, and the Earthquakes have as dangerous a front four as the MLS Western Conference foes they will be battling against to capture the last of the five available postseason berths. The increased speed in the midfield will ease the pressure on Lenhart as the target forward, as he will now be able to provide hold-up possession only as long as necessary to get the wingers into the attack. With more freedom to move off the ball, Lenhart and Wondolowski will be afforded every opportunity to find seams in the defense to get on the receiving end of midfielder crosses.
Of the players the team lost, only Bobby Burling will be missed in a San Jose uniform. The hulking central defender was selected by the Montreal Impact in the MLS Expansion Draft - yet still remains unsigned by his new team - and would have provided cover for an Earthquakes central defensive group that has been anything but healthy over the past couple seasons. Third year defender Ike Opara looks ready to make an impact this season, but he most certainly will miss time with San Jose as he will be part of the United States Olympic team this summer. Longtime Earthquakes defender Jason Hernandez will take more time to achieve full fitness following offseason surgery and won't be counted on to play in the season opener. As a replacement for Burling, the Earthquakes signed Honduran international Victor Bernardez to captain the defensive center, but he has also shown he needs more time to mesh with the team. Burling, while not likely a starter if he were still with the Earthquakes, would have provided a proven player as depth for the center back position. As a note, a more well-known player that left San Jose in the offseason was midfielder Bobby Convey. However, in part due to his petulance and clashes with the team's technical staff, he was lost from the Earthquakes in midsummer, and the team had already moved on in their preparations as the season came to a close. Convey never figured to be part of the Earthquakes plans for 2012.
I'm sure not many Revs fans watched too many of San Jose's preseason matches, but I think everyone caught wind of the 5-0 thrashing the Quakes put on Chivas USA in their last match. Was that an encouraging sign going into the regular season, or do you think it was just a meaningless game that Chivas sort of mailed in?
So much of the Earthquakes fortunes over the past few seasons have been linked to their confidence. When the defense stays solid and can control possession in getting the ball to their forward players, the team's attitude markedly shifts from "can we do this?" to "we will do this!" Goalkeeper Jon Busch might affectionately refer to his teammates as the Blue Collar Boys, but the team has not shown the workmen's attitude that such a moniker would suggest. Instead, San Jose goes through spells where they play on their heels and in effect wait for the game to come to them. From what I have watched in the preseason, the attitude has evolved into more of a wanting to be involved vibe, with players not waiting for, say, Chris Wondolowski to take a shot or Busch to make a great save. Rather, players are very active on the field and making runs off the ball with much more frequency and effectiveness. Part of that comes from the increased competition for playing time - the Earthquakes are likely to fill out their bench Saturday night with players that would start on most MLS teams - and part comes from an increased confidence in their collective play. Last weekend's 5-0 win over Chivas USA did not start that well, with the Goats controlling tempo for the first 20 minutes or so, but then the Earthquakes stepped up their game to the level seen during much of the preseason and forced Chivas USA into more of a reactive mood instead of letting them dictate the game. With the transformation complete, San Jose went on to control the match and put some wear and tear on the Jeld-Wen Field goal nets.
Who should New England fans look out for in this match?
Besides the notable improvements the Earthquakes have made on the flanks to introduce more speed to their attack, a key for the team is a relative unknown player who will be tasked with engineering the offense from the attacking midfielder position. Second year midfielder Rafael Baca, who made his debut for the Earthquakes in July following a lengthy paperwork filing period, has quickly emerged as the most dynamic player on the team with the ball at his feet. Not blessed with the size necessary to go toe-to-toe with tough defensive minded midfielders, Baca instead uses his skills and runs to keep possession moving and defenders guessing. He showed glimpses of his potential to run an offense as the Earthquakes played out their schedule late last season, and came into preseason camp looking sharper than ever. If Baca can provide quick linking passes from the defense to the wings, the Earthquakes will be able to quickly press against the Revolution defense and give forwards Steven Lenhart and Chris Wondolowski plenty of scoring opportunities.
Which Revs player do you think San Jose fears most on the pitch?
The two obvious choices for most-wanted on the Revolution have to be the stars in the center of midfield Shalrie Joseph and Benny Feilhaber. Both players impressed against the Earthquakes last time out, and with San Jose's new look midfield focused more on advancing the ball into the opponent's half, the defensive line will need to be ready to disrupt possession between the two New Englanders. Sam Cronin, while known more for his distribution skills, will be responsible with man-marking the skillful Feilhaber at the expense of pushing forward into the attack. Victor Bernardez, as captain of the Earthquakes back four, will be tasked with neutralizing the athletic Joseph when New England takes set pieces and when they build up possession toward the San Jose goal. Given that the Revolution are likely to sit deeper on defense, most of their forays into Earthquakes territory will likely come on the counterattack. Disrupting the exchange from Joseph and Feilhaber to the front players on the Revolution will be key to the Earthquakes efforts to keep the game one-sided.
Let's have your projected XI and a scoreline prediction.
With some of the new acquisitions rounding into shape and fighting for playing time with some of the more established Earthquakes, I expect that Coach Yallop will go with the following line-up stationed in a 4-4-2 formation:
GK Jon Busch
LB Ramiro Corrales
CB Justin Morrow
CB Victor Bernardez
RB Steven Beitashour
LM Shea Salinas
CM Sam Cronin
CM Rafael Baca
RM Marvin Chavez
F Chris Wondolowski
F Steven Lenhart
And possibly the following bench players:
As for a score-line at Buck Shaw Stadium this Saturday, the Earthquakes have not won a season opener since returning to the league in 2008. However, with New England in a rebuilding period - not to mention making a lengthy travel to the west coast - and San Jose coming off a confidence fueling 5-0 preseason victory over Chivas USA, I expect the Earthquakes will take firm control of the match from the outset and post a very comfortable 3-0 victory.