The back-slapping and guffaws that emanated from the Quakes locker room last Saturday night following their demolition of the visiting Columbus Crew quickly faded away with the start of a week of training in preparation for the New England Revolution. The 3-0 win over the Crew marked the fourth straight game where the Earthquakes showed measured improvement in on-the-field toughness and confidence, and allowed the team to escape the cellar of the Western Conference standings. The win also marked the high-water mark for head coach Frank Yallop’s match day roster selection after his strong declaration following s dismal home loss to Chivas USA put everyone on the team on notice.
Earlier in the week, the Earthquakes reserves took to the field against the Santa Clara University men’s soccer team in the Battle for Buck Shaw Supremacy. With seldom used forwards Matt Luzunaris and Ellis McLoughlin providing all the scoring in the game, the Quakes handedly disposed of the Broncos 3-0. Central midfielders Sam Cronin and Ampaipitakwong also put in strong efforts, while still-unsigned midfielder Rafael Baca continued to impress with his play both on and off the ball. For those not familiar with the saga of Baca, he is still a man without a country as he works to settle citizenship issues between Mexico and the United States. Once that process runs its course, the Earthquakes and Major League Soccer are prepared to sign him to a rookie contract.
By Friday, the team settled into a starting XI squad and a second-team squad for the purposes of intra-team scrimmages. The striking duo of Chris Wondolowski and Steven Lenhart — for whom a nickname goes begging — continued to develop a fine chemistry in partnering in the Quakes attack. Wondo has often struggled in the lone forward or target forward role, so the presence of Lenhart to draw away defenders gives the Golden Boot holder space to make his runs toward goal. In training, that partnership led to numerous quality scoring opportunities, despite the best efforts of Brandon McDonald and Bobby Burling to plug the center of defense. Wondolowski has a great nose for goal and a near clinical finish on one-touch shots — even playing against him every day in training proved to be too much for his Quakes teammates.
With news following the Crew game from Ryan Johnson that he has been selected by Jamaica to play in the Gold Cup, Yallop faced the task during the week of identifying the changes he would need to make following the weekend. With it looking likely that starting left back Bobby Convey will slide forward into Johnson’s midfield spot, the real decision comes with naming a new left side defender. During the “win and you’re in” series of matches that helped Yallop decide on his starting line-up moving forward, both Ramiro Corrales and Justin Morrow put in good efforts on defense. Corrales might be showing signs of age, as he lacks the close-down speed of Morrow, but he still displays an uncanny ability to make well-timed tackles that simultaneously result in a change in possession. The Earthquakes play two games next week — both against Chicago — and each defender looks to be in line to get a start.
Speaking of those two games, with Yallop prepared to send out the same starting XI against the Revolution that defeated the Crew — with Ike Opara replacing the suspended Brandon McDonald — Tuesday night’s U.S. Open Cup qualifier should feature a nearly complete turnover of players on the roster. While Yallop has stated emphatically all week that his team will take the Cup game seriously, the likely line-up changes will cause some to believe that sentiment rings hollow. However, given the strength of play from the 20 different players that have started matches for the Quakes over the past three weeks, there does not seem to be any significant drop from the “first teamers” to the “reserves” when it comes to player selection.
The team travels to Chicago on Thursday to face the Chicago Fire for the second time in five days in an MLS regular season match between two teams still struggling to find their footing. The U.S. Open Cup qualifier should prove to be an interesting dress rehearsal for the weekend, and the result that night will likely linger in the minds of both sets of players. Being the first of three road games in their next four matches, the trip to Toyota Park also marks a series of games against middle to lower tier MLS sides.