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Despite Last Place Finish, Quakes Exceed Expectations

Posted on 30 October 2008 by mdiamond

When the San Jose Earthquakes left the Bay Area for Houston in 2005, they left behind the team name and colors, but they took what mattered most—the players and coaches.

When the Quakes reformed for the 2008 season under new ownership, they had to start over as an expansion team, drafting unprotected players from other MLS teams. Right off the bat, the roster was filled primarily by reserves from other teams, so what kind of expectations should there have been for the new squad? What would constitute a successful campaign in 2008?

While the management was limited to the caliber of player available, they weren’t so restricted for drafting coaches. In November of last year the Los Angeles Galaxy’s head coach Frank Yallop resigned to sign a three-year contract with the new Quakes.

Yallop had coached San Jose to two MLS Cups in 2001 and 2003 and spent two years coaching the Canadian National Team before returning to MLS to coach the Galaxy, joining them mid-season in 2006. Despite his former coaching success with the Quakes, Yallop was unable to take the Galaxy to the playoffs in his two seasons with them.

The Galaxy’s loss was San Jose’s gain, and Yallop lost no time in focusing on defense in the expansion draft that took place just weeks after his arrival in the Bay Area. Yallop’s focus on the backs comes from his career as a defender in England’s First Division, three years in MLS with the Tampa Bay Mutiny, and 52 caps with the Canadian National Team.

One of the bright spots for the 2008 Earthquakes was they gave up only 38 goals this season, finishing fourth in the league in goals allowed. On the road, the Quakes allowed 19 goals. Only two teams allowed fewer road goals, Chicago (16) and Houston (18).

Led by team captain Nick Garcia, the defense kept games reasonably close while the team struggled to score in the beginning of the campaign. The offense scored only 11 goals in the first 17 games going into the All-Star break, by far the lowest output in the league.

Predictably the Quakes struggled at first winning only three games by the All-Star break. Then in a flurry of wheeling and dealing during the last two weeks of July San Jose acquired Darren Huckerby from Norwich City by way of Toronto FC, Scott Sealy from Kansas City, Francisco Lima from the Italian Serie leagues, and Arturo Alvarez from FC Dallas. All four immediately took starting roles and the Quakes’ fortunes swung dramatically.

Huckerby in particular gave defenses fits. As the left wing, he used his speed, skill, and confidence to turn and befuddle outside midfielders and defenders. He forced central defenders to get involved enabling his teammates to find room in the box. In September he was named MLS Player of the Month and was announced as San Jose’s season MVP before the team’s final game against Toronto FC.

With two draws going into the All-Star break, the Quakes proceeded to add seven more games to a MLS season’s best nine undefeated games and the second longest unbeaten run ever by an expansion team. The Chicago Fire had an 11-game unbeaten run as an expansion team in 1998. The streak was the third-longest unbeaten streak in Earthquake team history.

The streak was comprised of four wins and five ties. Having started the run with a large deficit in points, it wasn’t until the middle of September that San Jose briefly moved out of the Western Conference cellar, stepping past the Galaxy into sixth place.

Ironically as the offense gained potency, the defense began to struggle, or at least have moments of impotency. Going into the October playoff stretch, the Quakes dropped four of their last seven games relegating them back to the bottom of the conference. In two of the losses, San Jose gave up game-winning goals to the Dynamo and the Wizards in stoppage time.

In several games the vaunted Quakes defense got plain out beat by bigger, faster forwards. Real’s Yura Movsisyan and Chivas’ Justin Braun challenged San Jose’s back line and scored critical goals that ultimately put the Quakes out of playoff contention.

Summarizing the year Yallop said, “We had a good run in the middle part of the season, but we couldn’t finish the season out. We played the same lineup week after week and it caught up with a little bit. We didn’t sustain our play like we needed to get into the playoffs. I think we built a solid team this year though.”

Nevertheless, with a 2-0 win over Toronto FC to finish their season, the Earthquakes had the best season by an expansion team this decade. The Quakes finished the year with wins (8) and points (33). They also scored more goals (32) and allowed fewer goals (38) than any of the four expansion teams this decade. In 2005, Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake earned four and five wins, respectively, while Chivas picked up 18 points and RSL 20 points. Last season, Toronto FC had six wins and 25 points for the entire season.

Put into perspective, San Jose had a terrific season despite finishing last. Credit goes to Yallop and the front office for making the savvy midseason trades to bolster the offense.

Huckerby recognized the Quake’s achievement. “It was a great first season. We excelled from the position we were in and almost reached the playoffs. We had a bad stretch of three or four games that hurt us. It is a shame that we didn’t reach the playoffs, but I think we had a good run.”

What lies ahead for San Jose after their solid 2008 start? Clearly holding onto team MVP Darren Huckerby has got to be top priority. So far he sounds positive about his future in the Bay Area.

“I am looking forward to joining the team in preseason and building something,” he said. “This year it was tough to come in midseason, but next year, we will have a preseason to prepare and we will be ready come the start of the season.”

In fact the Quakes are overloaded at the outside midfielder position with Ronnie O’Brien playing opposite of Huckerby on the right and contributing big this season as well leading the team with six assists. Finally, Shea Salinas has come off the bench in the second half and shown deft ball skills while making runs at opposing defenses. Salinas shows great promise if he can garner more playing time.

The situation in the central midfield is less clear. Ramiro Corrales was hampered for much of the second half of the season with a sprained left knee. In his ninth year in MLS, he’s getting a little long in the tooth. With 142 appearances, Corrales is now tied for third on the Earthquakes all-time appearances list with Wade Barrett. Newcomer Francisco Lima and the scrappy Ned Grabavoy played solidly for a side that hadn’t had much time together, but the midfield did have games where they seemed disorganized and out of sync. Whether more experience and interaction can raise the midfield game or new blood is needed will depend on what is available when the coaching staff goes to draft and trade.

Similarly the forwards displayed occasional glimmers of brilliance, but closing the deal for the strikers was at best inconsistent. Scott Sealy and Arturo Alvarez, each with three goals and three assists, were a vast improvement over the season’s initial starters, Kei Kamara and Gavin Glinton, but there’s still a long way to go. Ryan Johnson was a consistent second half sub and made his presence felt. Playing in 28 games but getting only 1535 minutes, he still managed to score five goals, second best after Huckerby’s six. With more experience and vision he could move into a starting spot.

Netminder Joe Cannon was the only Quakes player to play every minute of the season. Despite his nine years in the league, there’s no reason to believe Joe is going anywhere. He ended the year third all-time in MLS in appearances (246), third in minutes (22,155), third all-time in saves (1026), second all-time in shutouts (65), fifth all-time in wins (92) and tied for seventh all-time in goals against average (1.30).

Finally, there’s the defense. You have to feel for soccer defenders. They don’t get the glory of scoring goals, but they take the heat for allowing them. They occasionally get a nod for shutting down offenses, but such achievements don’t reflect in their personal statistics. They get a higher percentage of fouls committed and cautions. OK, caveats over.

Team captain Nick Garcia has had a sterling career mostly with the Kansas City Wizards, but in his ninth year, he has lost a step. It’s especially noticeable against the fast young strikers who gave him a run for his money this season. Eric Denton on the outside struggled at times as well. Ryan Cochrane and Jason Hernandez in the middle still have plenty to contribute, and James Riley has the speed to take on wingers into the corners.

As always, the coaches and office staff will be looking for bigger, faster defenders to solidify the back line.

In its second year Toronto FC still languished in last place in the East. Real Salt Lake is in the playoffs for the first time this year since its 2005 debut. On the other hand Chivas made the playoffs in its second year after a miserable rookie season. The Quakes outperformed all three of these teams in their expansion season giving Bay Area fans reason to believe that Frank Yallop is in an excellent position to weave the same magic that resulted in MLS Cups in San Jose in 2001 and 2003.

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