This time last year, the San Jose Earthquakes were riding high. They had upset the New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference playoffs and had seen the emergence of Chris Wondolowski as a bona fide goal scorer. Although the team had definite weaknesses and was not at the level of, say, Real Salt Lake, this was certainly a team that could be a playoff contender.
The outlook could not be more different this year as opposed to last. Wondo is still a goal scorer, tying Dwayne De Rosario for most goals scored this season, but his goals came in bunches and he was not a consistent threat. There are question marks throughout the roster including whether the head coach will last through the upcoming season. This is a team in flux, and if they fail to seriously contend for the playoffs this season we could see a massive roster overhaul this time next year (which arguably is a good thing).
Let’s limit ourselves to the key three questions that will tip the balance on San Jose’s 2012 season:
1. What is the status of Steven Lenhart?
We know he is signed. He was a critical scoring option for the team last season, partnering well with Wondo to provide a second up-front scoring option for a team that at times desperately needed goals. But the death of his father took him away from the game for an extended period of time, which coincided with their funk.
I personally will never judge someone for how they deal with the death of a parent, so I will simply say how he is mentally and physically fit for 2012 will be important for this team. To be blunt, absent signing a big money striker, this team will fail without him. As many goals as Wondo scores, he is inconsistent and cannot be relied upon to lead a team’s offense if that team is competing for a high-seed in the playoffs. Lenhart is the perfect partner for him, and San Jose knows this.
2. Can the ‘Quakes run their way into the playoffs?
To address some of their issues from this past season, Frank Yallop is rebuilding his midfield around speed. And not since Keanu Reeves tried to drive a bus has such a desire for going fast been so confusing. San Jose made a great trade to bring Marvin Chavez over from Dallas but also this offseason they acquired Jean Alexandre from Real Salt Lake. Alexandre has been a backup at RSL but has shown some flashes of being a productive midfielder if he gets regular playing time. Undoubtedly Chavez is a great pickup but time will tell if Alexandre and their additional acquisitions this offseason can make them a faster team that can quickly get the ball up front to Wondo and Lenhart.
Looking at their depth as a whole, however, you wonder if these moves make sense. In addition to the two players mentioned, the ‘Quakes have also picked up Shea Salinas while re-signing Khari Stephenson. Looking at the current roster, it is composed of players who would be good depth players on a MLS Cup contender, not ones that can be counted on to drive a team to the Cup. Maybe the new speed will change this.
3. Can the ‘Quakes count on Ike Opara?
The injured Opara was symbolic of the San Jose defense last season: underachieving and made worse by the loss of Brandon McDonald via trade to DC. The once rising U.S. star was not even invited to Caleb Porter’s U-23 camp this offseason as he continues to recover from injury. He was named an “honorable mention” for the MLS “24 under 24″ list but this could be a make or break season for him. If he stays healthy and helps solidify a bad SJ defense, he will be back on track to be the next U.S. up-and-coming defender. More injuries or sporadic play and we could be lamenting “what if”.