Friday, May 7, 2010

Red Bulls Preview: Sizing Up San Jose Earthquakes

One of the more interesting and under-reported stories of the young MLS season is the turn in fortunes of the San Jose Earthquakes.  After a completely forgettable 2009, Frank Yallop - a manager who looked to be on the hot seat just a few months ago - has his team playing some attractive counterattacking soccer and winning points.  Apart from an opening game 3-0 drubbing at the hands of Real Salt Lake, the Quakes have looked solid and are no longer the pushovers they were last season.

Only the putrid Red Bulls racked up a worse record than San Jose in 2009.  With a roster led be veterans such as Darren Huckerby and Ramiro Corrales, along with a sprinkling of youth, the Quakes managed only seven wins all of last season.  One of those wins, of course, came against RBNY, who dropped a 1-0 decision at Buck Shaw Stadium on a Ryan Johnson penalty.  The reverse fixture, played earlier in the 2009 season, saw the Red Bulls dominate in a 4-1 win, but that was before the wheels came off the Osorio bandwagon.

This season, things seem to be clicking for San Jose.  Chris Wondolowski (pictured celebrating with fans), who came over from Houston in exchange for Cam Weaver last summer, is off to a hot start and has given Yallop some badly-needed punch up front, scoring a wonder goal (pun intended) against Colorado and finding the net in three successive league matches.  Winger Bobby Convey, who seemed lost most of last season, seems to finally be showing the tenacity that the Quakes hoped he would provide when he returned from his stint with Reading in England.  Given his injury history, it's easy to forget that Convey is still only 26.  If he can recover his form and stay away from the trainer's table, he could be a key player for the Quakes.  Joey Gjertsen, who came over from the Montreal Impact, provided additional attacking options from midfield.  Arturo Alvarez, who has been a thorn in the side of more than one MLS club, is questionable for Saturday's game with a hamstring strain. 

On the defensive side of the ball, rookie Ike Opara has added solidity at the back and has even chipped in with crucial goals, while commuting back and forth to Wake Forest to complete his college degree. The days when strikers could just waltz by a guy like Nick Garcia seem to be a thing of the past. In goal, the tandem of Jon Busch and Joe Cannon provides San Jose with what is potentially the best 1-2 punch in Major League Soccer.

Clearly, this is not your father's Earthquakes.  They are harder to break down, have more attacking options up front and are younger and relatively injury-free.  After a few very difficult years, things may finally be starting to look up in the Bay Area again.

The Red Bulls, meanwhile, may be coming off the high of a 2-0 victory over DC United at RFK last Saturday that ran their record to an impressive 5-1, but this is their third West Coast trip in six weeks.  Salou Ibrahim and Dane Richards both look to be fit for the match, after injury concerns earlier in the week.  The only notable Red Bull missing is Carl Robinson, who stayed behind in New York to nurse his sore knee.  Brian Lewis reports that Tony Tchani could make his first MLS start in Robbo's place.

This will be a battle of two clubs off to positive starts looking to put the troubles of 2009 behind them.  If the Red Bulls can manage a win or a draw, they will be in excellent shape heading into tough league home games against Seattle and Columbus.
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