If you're like me, you maybe don't pay that much attention to everything going on with the rest of MLS, so may not know all that much about other teams in the league. To help out with that, I'll be doing a regular-ish feature, inviting a blogger from Toronto FC's upcoming opponents to answer a few questions and give us an idea of what to look out for when TFC play them.
Here to prepare us for Saturday and introduce us to the San Jose Earthquakes is Robert Jonas, of SB Nation's excellently named Quake, Rattle and Goal. So, in best Joey Tribbiani voice, San Jose, how you doin'?
Waking the Red: Three games in, how do you feel about your season so far? What changes have been made to last years team, and how have they improved things?
Quake, Rattle and Goal: Head Coach Frank Yallop has been building up his squad the last three years with 2011 being the target season to break into the upper echelon of the league. Reaching the Eastern Conference final in last year’s playoffs only served notice that the project was ahead of schedule and that this season demanded high expectations.
With many of the core players from 2010 returning for the Earthquakes this year, the improved quality of play among the first team has been on display in the first three games of the season. Unfortunately, a disappointing loss in the home opener to Real Salt Lake and a tough, but probably deserved, draw with Seattle last weekend leave the Quakes with only one point earned at Buck Shaw Stadium.
Since late last season and through the preseason this year, Coach Yallop has been pressing his team to play a more possession style, with defenders looking more to distribute than just knocking long balls into the opponent’s end. The midfielders as well are proving more adept at connecting passes across the field, while waiting for the passages through the defense to open up to deliver passes to the forwards. The team is still improving on all these counts, and players and coaches alike have commented that they feel their 1-1-1 record undervalues what they are capable of doing.
WTR: Chris Wondolowski obviously had a great year in 2010. He's had a good start to 2011 with 2 goals already this year, can he keep it up? Who else should Toronto be looking out for on Saturday?
QRG: Wondolowski has scored two goals this year and missed five great scoring opportunities — all in just three MLS games. Whether in training or in the matches themselves, Wondo has shown that last season was more a coming out party for the 27-year old forward/midfielder, and that he won’t relinquish his 2010 Golden Boot award easily in 2011. With over half the team’s total goals scored in 2010, Wondo should not be asked to carry such a responsibility this year, and already we are seeing guys step up to take those chances. Khari Stephenson, Bobby Convey, Ryan Johnson, and Simon Dawkins are all quality finishers on the MLS level, and will be asked to take some of the defensive focus away from Wondo.
Of that quartet, the player to really pay attention to is Tottenham Hotspur loanee Dawkins. He scored the first Earthquakes goal against Seattle last weekend — breaking up a streak of 12 straight regular-season goals scored by Wondo — and was very dangerous all match long. Dawkins has some slick technical skills that he complements with great off-ball movement. As he gets more comfortable with the players around him, expect to see Dawkins become the attacking leader for San Jose.
WTR: Most TFC supporters would agree that one of the worst decisions of Preki's reign was to let Sam Cronin go for nothing more than allocation money. How important has he been to San Jose since his arrival?
QRG: If you want to get General Manager John Doyle to let out a guffaw, ask him one of two questions — what it was like playing with the U.S. National Team back in the dark ages of the late ‘80s or how happy was he to get that phone call from Preki asking if he was interested in acquiring Sam Cronin for a small pile of MLS funny money.
Since his arrival in San Jose during the 2010 season, Cronin has steadily become the anchor of the team from his position of holding midfielder. The perfect player for Coach Yallop’s system — a guy that always cleans up defensively before worrying about attacking — the "Croninja" is the link between the central defensive duo and the attacking midfielders. He is the focal point of passing sequences from one touchline to the other, and also the player most relied upon to neutralize the opponent’s star midfielder.
He is not going to show up on the stats sheet very often, but his consistent work on the field has allowed the Quakes possession style to really take off this season. A well-deserved call-up to the U.S. Men’s National Team camp in January only punctuated the year he had in San Jose.
WTR: As opposed to TFC, San Jose have steadily improved since their expansion year. What's been the key to that, and what are your expectations for the 'Quakes this year? The Western Conference is full of good teams, can San Jose match or beat their Conference final finish of last year?
QRG: Unlike most expansion teams of late in MLS, the Earthquakes started off with little in the cupboard, spare a couple of dusty MLS Cup trophies from their prior incarnation. No lower division team roster, no youth or development teams, no training fields, no stadium, and no coaching staff. When Yallop was hired away from the L.A. Galaxy in November of 2007, he had just a few days to prepare for the Expansion Draft and the first crop of players.
Over the next two seasons, the Earthquakes would finish in last place in the Western Conference.
But Doyle and Yallop were working behind the scenes to collect young talented players that would fit their defensive system while having the acumen to be effective in attack as the situation warranted. Keeping the salary budget under control has allowed for player improvements to be made each summer during the transfer window with an eye at keeping the team strong going into the later months of the season.
Last season — year three of the new Quakes — saw the team sneak into the playoffs and make a nice run at the MLS Cup. The expectations around the Earthquakes in 2011 are that they finish higher up the playoff qualifiers list and at the very least make it back to a Conference final. The players especially talk about the sour taste left in their mouths by the narrow defeat to Colorado in the playoffs — they want to be in Los Angeles in late November holding aloft the Cup in 2011. With the group they have — and maybe the addition of one summer signing impact player — they should have no excuses for not accomplishing that goal.