Wednesday, May 13, 2009
San Jose a huge disappointment so far
It was the Scottish poet Robert Burns who once wrote, "The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry." To that group, you can add this season's edition of the San Jose Earthquakes, a team for which little has gone right during the first two months of the MLS regular season.
Put in the present context of San Jose's woeful 1-5-2 record, it's surprising to think that in some quarters, the team was a trendy pick to contend for this year's MLS Cup. But even the most cynical observers thought that, at a minimum, the Quakes would improve on last year's haul of 33 points. A passel of promising forwards as well as the addition of U.S. international midfielder Bobby Convey had augmented the popgun attack of 2008. A full year of having Darren Huckerby's marauding runs down the left flank also appeared to bode well. And with nearly all the pieces returning from last year's fourth-ranked defense, it was expected that San Jose could ride out any lean times its attack might encounter.
"Defensively, we were excellent last season," San Jose general manager John Doyle said. "So the thought was, 'We'll bring in a few more attacking players, and with our defensive record, we'll be a good team.'"
Yet none of those moves has paid off yet. New forwards such as Cam Weaver and Pablo Campos haven't found the consistency needed to earn extended stays in the lineup, while Convey has yet to be the attacking force that manager Frank Yallop had envisioned he would be. Meanwhile, the defense has been sievelike, conceding a league-worst 16 goals, with several of them due to the most basic of errors. Friday's 4-1 humiliation at the hands of the New York Red Bulls -- a match that Doyle called "embarrassing" -- revealed just how far San Jose is from fulfilling its preseason promise.
So how has the Quakes' season unraveled so quickly? The attacking plans of Yallop and Doyle always were fraught with risk in terms of the forwards' inexperience and Convey's lack of familiarity with the attacking midfielder role in which he was originally cast.
But the Quakes' ills run much deeper than the struggles of Convey and the forwards. Injuries to key personnel also have played a part. Defender Jason Hernandez has missed the entire season so far because of a calf strain, and his pace in the center of the defense has been sorely missed. The absence of Huckerby thanks to a thigh strain the past four games has robbed the team of an unpredictable element on its attack. Defender Ryan Cochrane, who has never been healthy since returning to San Jose in 2008, underwent left ankle surgery April 24 and will miss 10 to 12 weeks.
In light of the injury bug that has been striking teams such as New England and Chivas USA, both Yallop and Doyle are loath to discuss this factor, but there's no doubting the collective hole the absences have created in the Quakes' lineup.
"Huckerby, even when he doesn't have his best game, he still gets two or three chances," Doyle said. "He opens teams up and makes teams worry about him. We miss him, his energy. That's been hard."
The failure to retain holding midfielder Francisco Lima, who quit in a huff during the offseason in a disagreement over his contract, has had a similar effect. The Brazilian was among last year's crop of reinforcements who sparked a midseason revival, and no one currently on the Quakes' roster can duplicate his range and tackling, leaving Ramiro Corrales to shoulder too much of the defensive burden in midfield.
But what has really torpedoed the team's season has been the underperformance of several of the team's veteran players, especially on defense. The miscommunication between goalkeeper Joe Cannon and defender Nick Garcia that allowed Chivas USA forward Justin Braun to score the game's only goal in a 1-0 loss on May 2 is just the most obvious example.
If you add it all up, you have a team low on confidence that seems beaten once the first goal goes into its net.
"We're just too easy to play against," Yallop said. "From up front, into midfield and then into the back, I feel we're quite soft.
"Sometimes, just two or three players make the difference and make that little bit of glue where you lead by example and people follow. I think Lima gave us that last year, that little bit of steel. Wherever he played, he was tough. I think we've got to have that."
Now the Quakes find themselves in exactly the same position as they did a year ago: trying to manufacture confidence within the players they have while looking for reinforcements to arrive during the summer transfer window.
Doyle indicated that he'll head to Costa Rica this week to scout players and that he'll do the same during the upcoming July Gold Cup, where some of the CONCACAF region's best talent will be on display. As for where he'll look to shore up his side, Doyle said, "Right up the middle of the team. It's not six players [that we need]. It's two or three players, probably a center back, a center midfielder and a forward."
In the meantime, Yallop is left to bolster the mentality of a side that won't play another match until a May 23 tilt in Houston. If Monday's practice is anything to go by, this weekend's break from the league schedule won't resemble anything close to a vacation. But to a man, the Quakes players feel that training is where repairing the team's fragile psyche begins.
"I'd say in my eight-year career, [Monday's] training session ranks up there in the top five [in terms of difficulty]," said defender Chris Leitch, who has been one of the few players to pull his weight. "It was no joke. I foresee that happening the rest of this week. This weekend we have a bye. I don't think it's going to be a bye for us. I have a feeling we're going to work our asses off this week and next week, and rightfully so."
Cannon added, "We've gotten away from a blue-collar ethic. But I think [Yallop] has done a good job of, right now, knowing we need a push. Not only do we need a push physically, but a push mentally as well. I think guys were maybe starting to get a little comfortable."
Can the Quakes pull off a resurgence similar to last year, when a nine-game unbeaten streak put them back into the playoff race? It's possible, although Seattle's entry into MLS and its impressive early play make San Jose's odds of reaching the postseason longer than they were in 2008. The Quakes also must be just as successful in acquiring quality reinforcements as they were last year.
"I definitely don't think it's all over," Doyle said. "We've dug a hole for ourselves, but I think with a few additions, and even if just the guys that are here start playing better, we'll be fine."
Cannon, among others on the team, admitted he needs to raise his game for the team to break out of its funk. His experience also will be called upon.
"I've been in this situation before with Colorado, and there's no need to panic," Cannon said. "We have guys that are good enough. But at the same time & we do need to make adjustments."
Perhaps those best-laid plans will bear more fruit.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.