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Saturday, March 22, 2008
San Jose's offense the question mark

Jeff Carlisle

Editor's note: This is the ninth of 14 MLS team previews by ESPNsoccernet for the 2008 season.

2007 record and finish: Returns to MLS as an expansion team after a two-year absence.

Key additions: GK Joe Cannon, D Nick Garcia, D Ryan Cochrane, M Ivan Guerrero, M Ramiro Corrales, M Ned Grabavoy, M Ronnie O'Brien, F Kei Kamara

Key questions

1. Can the expansion Quakes compete?

For all the talk of how Chicago won an MLS title in its first season, expansion sides generally have found the going tough. Miami qualified for the playoffs back in 1998, but Real Salt Lake, Chivas USA and Toronto didn't come close in their inaugural campaigns.

So can the Quakes buck the trend and even make the playoffs? Not likely, although the team does have its strengths. The San Jose brain trust of GM John Doyle and coach Frank Yallop has succeeded in building a capable defensive outfit that is miles better than anything the last three expansion teams put out. With goalkeeper Joe Cannon and a likely central defensive pairing of Nick Garcia and Ryan Cochrane, the Quakes will be "tough to beat" in soccer parlance, and you can bet Yallop will get the rest of his side organized quickly.

2. Will San Jose be able to score enough goals?

Although Doyle and Yallop have had quite a bit of success piecing together their defense, the Quakes will struggle on the attacking side of the ball. The acquisition of midfielder Ronnie O'Brien should add some offensive punch, although questions about his durability remain. And with Ivan Guerrero, Ned Grabavoy and Ramiro Corrales filling out the midfield, San Jose should be capable of feeding the front line.

But is there enough quality up top to really test defenses? In a word, no. Gavin Glinton excelled as a supersub with L.A., but not as a 90-minute player, and Kei Kamara has yet to deliver on the promise that saw Columbus make him the ninth overall selection in the 2006 SuperDraft.

The Quakes will make additional scouting trips to England and Costa Rica before the season starts and, despite their wheeling and dealing, have allocation money left to spend. But in the meantime, they look poised to begin the season short of the kind of firepower that will put fear in opposition defenses.

3. Will Yallop regain his magic touch?

Opinions vary as to whether Yallop or L.A. general manager Alexi Lalas deserved more of the blame for the Galaxy's wretched 2007 campaign. But make no mistake, Yallop's once-pristine reputation took a severe hit, even as he nearly snuck the Galaxy into last year's playoffs. The implication was that the Canadian wilted under the megawatt glare that came with the arrival of David Beckham, and several of the trades that happened under his stewardship had a whiff of panic about them.

Eric Wynalda's Take:
"I'm a big believer in Frank Yallop and the way he does things. He's been able to put that nightmare in L.A. behind him, wipe the slate clean, and I think he has a lot more control now. The control that he did not have last year. The spotlight on Beckham and the intensity of his arrival, injuries and never being able to get on track. It was a very confusing year. San Jose won't be that case. He's going to be able to go back to the basics. I think this team will do well. I think when you give Yallop control, when you allow him to mold a team and to find guys and to keep them motivated, he does well. I think he'll be happy to not have the mess of last year on his shoulders anymore. Going back home is going to be a big deal for him. It's Frank's opportunity to get back on track. It's a building process, but I think they'll win the war against L.A."

Now Yallop finds himself back in the city where he won championships in 2001 and 2003, and if the opening practice sessions are any indication, there is a more relaxed, confident air surrounding him as he takes the reins in San Jose.

Yallop's status as a players' coach remains intact, but the impression from some of the Quakes' early-season moves is that they are overpaying to acquire players. Garcia and O'Brien are solid, established MLS veterans, but giving up two first-round draft picks and allocation money to obtain them seems a stretch. Of course, questions were raised back in 2003 when Yallop brought in unproven performers such as Brian Mullan and Brian Ching. On that occasion, Yallop's moves came up trumps. If the Quakes are to be competitive, their coach's instincts will need to be just as sharp now.

Biggest X factor: Ronnie O'Brien

So which O'Brien will show up: the two-time MLS Best XI performer, or the injury-plagued midfielder whose succession of knee injuries caused goal-starved Toronto to give up on him? As currently constituted, this team is pinning much of its postseason hopes on a healthy O'Brien galvanizing the attack with his crosses and free kicks. The Irishman says an operation in December to remove a bone spur has him back to 100 percent. But as with any injury rehab, the proof will come in actual games, not just in terms of O'Brien's mobility but also how he recovers physically.

Breakout player to watch: Kei Kamara

Putting Kamara into this category isn't so much a prediction as it is a requirement if the Quakes are to be successful. Given San Jose's lack of front-line depth, much of the scoring burden looks set to fall on Kamara, a player who tallied just five times over two seasons with the Columbus Crew while splitting time between forward and the right side of midfield. Blessed with good size and pace, Kamara certainly has the physical tools to get the job done. But a shaky first touch and a tendency to mentally check out of games have prevented his making a bigger impact, and given the Quakes' dearth of forwards, a big impression is exactly what they need.

Grabavoy is another possibility. The Indiana product set a career high with 24 starts last season in Columbus, and with more attacking responsibilities placed on him this year, his offensive numbers could go up. Grabavoy has even seen time as a second forward in the preseason, and his quick feet and attacking guile could give San Jose the offensive boost it so desperately needs.

Outlook

MLS Primetime Thursday
April 3
New England vs. Chicago
8 p.m. ET, (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, ESPN360)

San Jose vs. Los Angeles
10.30 p.m. ET, (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, ESPN360)

Many factors will have to fall into place perfectly if the Quakes are to make an impact beyond that of typical first-year teams. In the past, Yallop has been adept at getting the most out of blue-collar players, and although the team's underdog role should suit him well, he'll need to be at the top of his game.

The disparate group of players also will need to jell quickly to develop the level of teamwork many of San Jose's conference rivals already possess. Several heretofore unproven performers will need to have career seasons, and others, such as O'Brien, will need to return to form.

But above all else, the Quakes must stay healthy to have any hope of the postseason. The team has accumulated a fair bit of depth in defense and parts of midfield, meaning San Jose should be able to survive a mild run of injuries better than most expansion teams. But the same can't be said about the squad's wafer-thin complement of attacking players. If the likes of Grabavoy, O'Brien or Kamara goes down injured for any length of time, a case of Toronto-like offensive futility -- and a spot near the bottom of the standings -- is in the offing.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.




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