MLS 2011 team preview: Earthquakes
2010 record and finish: 13-10-7 (6th place in Western Conference)
Key questions facing this team:
1. Can Chris Wondolowski deliver an encore?
If MLS had an Out of Nowhere Player of the Year, Wondolowski would have won it in a walk. After tallying just seven times total in his previous five MLS seasons, he erupted for a league-leading 18 regular-season goals while playing a variety of positions, edging out L.A. Galaxy forward Edson Buddle for the Golden Boot in the process. Can he do it again? It seems unlikely, but 2010 also showed that you write Wondolowski off at your peril. The San Jose striker doesn't possess many eye-catching physical gifts, but his razor-sharp finishing, combined with an uncanny ability to find that extra yard of space needed to get looks at goal, means a double-digit total is certainly doable.
2. Can the Quakes find a reliable second scoring option?
This is perhaps the bigger question. As captivating as Wondolowski's campaign was, it obscured the fact that San Jose scored just 33 goals all season, the lowest of any playoff team. The Quakes acquired erstwhile Columbus forward Steven Lenhart in the offseason to add some heft up front, and the hope is that between Lenhart and Ryan Johnson, the scoring load will be spread out more evenly among the forwards. San Jose could also benefit from more goals from a midfield that recorded just six tallies all season. The return to health of center midfielder Andre Luiz should help, as will the presumed arrival of Tottenham midfielder Simon Dawkins, but more production out of the right midfield spot -- assuming Wondolowski plays up top -- will be needed.
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3. Can San Jose's outside backs hold up?
At first glance, the group looks solid with captain Ramiro Corrales combining with the veteran savvy of Chris Leitch and the versatility of Tim Ward. But Corrales, who will turn 34 just before the start of the campaign, has been unable to make it through the past two seasons without suffering a major injury. If he were to go down again, manager Frank Yallop would suddenly find himself with only the inexperienced Stephen Beitashour and Justin Morrow to provide cover. Granted, Bobby Convey has been deputized at left back in the past, but that seems a waste of his talents. The Quakes' outside backs could be their Achilles heel this season.
Biggest X Factor: Andre Luiz
The Brazilian has been injured practically from the moment he arrived in the summer of 2009. In 2010, he tore both the PCL and MCL in his left knee, ending his season prematurely. The heroics of Wondolowski and the play of Sam Cronin helped soften the blow, but if Luiz can stay healthy this season, his composure and incisiveness on the ball should lead to more possession as well as more goals.
Breakout player to watch: Ike Opara
Opara's performances in early 2010 had him poised to be a rookie of the year candidate, but a broken foot suffered in late July ended his season. Now fully recovered, Opara is set to pick up where he left off. The Wake Forest product will need to clean up his distribution out of the back, but he possesses some freakish athletic gifts and is a major threat on set pieces.
Outlook: With San Jose residing in the hypercompetitive Western Conference, and with little in the way of attacking reinforcements arriving last winter, the Quakes will be hard pressed to repeat last year's memorable -- and surprising -- run into the postseason.
Without question, the defense is championship caliber. Opara, along with the criminally underrated Jason Hernandez, should provide plenty of protection in front of goalkeeper Jon Busch, who proved to be an astute pickup last season when the now departed Joe Cannon went down injured. In front of those two, Cronin's ability to link defense to attack remains a key component, and Brandon McDonald can provide plenty of bite if needed.
Yet much will ride on San Jose's ability to generate more offense. In midfield, Convey's comeback season provided a massive boost, but without belaboring the point, the Quakes' need another creative presence, preferably alongside Cronin. Luiz could be that player as could Dawkins and the recently re-signed Khari Stephenson, but the Brazilian's injury history doesn't bode well. The emergence of one of these players will likely be the difference between the team treading water or climbing up the Western Conference ladder.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.