The San Jose Earthquakes are not scoring goals, and as a result, they have slipped precariously to the edge of elimination from postseason consideration. Sure, the team is still mathematically alive, but realistically they will need a transformation in results that is unprecedented in MLS history, to sneak into the 2011 MLS Cup playoffs. Instead, the Quakes look more like they will finish the season with the same points-per-game output they delivered in the first two seasons they completed since rejoining the league in 2008.
With the offense being an issue and their normal complement of forwards sidelined by injury or absence, the franchise made a desperation move to increase their scoring output by making a transfer deadline deal to bring in Ecuadoran striker Edmundo Zura. Well, in a cautionary tale on why you need to do your homework on international signings, the Earthquakes coaching staff was shocked to find the reportedly fit and healthy Zura was in no shape to help the team break free of its offensive problems. In an embarrassing sequence of events, the Quakes and MLS dissolved their loan agreement with Zura’s parent club El Nacional in Ecuador, and sent the disappointing striker back to his South American homeland.
The whole episode left a pall on the organization for those that had held out hope that the Earthquakes could turn around a summer-long series of winless games and make a late push for the postseason. Instead, the team will have rally around its own available players and hope that the breaks — and there are a lot of breaks — go their way over the last two months of the season.
While forwards Simon Dawkins and Scott Sealy, who are both returning from injury, and converted midfielder Khari Stephenson are options to start up top with the reliable Chris Wondolowski, a couple newcomers to the Earthquakes this season are patiently biding their time and waiting for their opportunities to make an impression on the big stage. Rookies Matt Luzunaris and Ellis McLoughlin have both had some limited minutes so far in the 2011 season, but are still waiting for some consistent playing time to show they are ready to handle the pressures of MLS. Head coach Frank Yallop recognizes their contributions, but still plans to bring them on slowly with the first team.
"But both are doing fine," said Yallop. "Will they get their chances? Hopefully when they get them they will take them. (Second year defender) Justin Morrow took his chance and looked good. Once they get a chance to play, you don’t know when it’s coming, so like I always say, be ready."
For McLoughlin, he had some impact with the club back in May, especially in the team’s two U.S. Open Cup qualifier matches, but an injury set back his season and he’s fighting to get back into the picture. For Luzunaris, the chances have been even fewer, and earlier in August he was sent on loan to Orlando City SC, where he scored twice in three appearances for the eventual 2011 USL PRO league champions. Away to Toronto FC on August 27, Luzunaris entered as a late game substitute and was on the field when the Earthquakes drew level with the hosts through a Chris Wondolowski goal.
"He’s a natural forward," said Yallop to describe Luzunaris. "A box player that wants to get on the score sheet. We created a lot of good chances (against Toronto FC), including Matt having a couple, and I thought we were pushing toward the end and it is a shame we couldn’t go on and win it."
Luzunaris looked good during his late game cameo against the Reds, often times opening up space for Wondolowski with his good movement off the ball. Defenders needed to be aware of where Luzunaris was at all times, and Wondo benefitted with less defensive attention. He is not the fastest member of the team — a quality that few on the Earthquakes roster can proudly claim — but he does bring a youthful hunger to play that helped lift the team.
"We needed a boost, and I think I have that to offer to the team," said Luzunaris. "I have a lot of energy, and I think I’ll make the runs that some guys may not be able to make. I feel when I came on it definitely helped the team and gave them a boost of energy."
Not lacking in confidence, the former teammate of U.S. National Team forward Jozy Altidore back in the youth divisions of U.S. Soccer knows that consistency of play comes from getting minutes in meaningful matches. Luzunaris also believes that with good results come confidence, and that scoring often comes in bunches as a result.
"If I had come into that game coming from Orlando after scoring two goals in three games it definitely would have made a difference," stated Luzunaris. "Overall, over the last 10 minutes we were in their half, so I think it went well, and I hope we can continue building off of that to finish off the season."
After the failed experiment of bringing in Zura to spark the Earthquakes offense, coach Yallop has stated that he will look to Dawkins and Sealy as his first choices to pair with Wondolowski. However, Luzunaris believes his efforts and dedication to the club since his arrival in the preseason should be given credit as Yallop fills out his match day 18 each weekend for the remainder of the 2011 season, despite the Zura debacle.
"To be honest with you, Zura here or Zura out does not make a difference to me," said Luzunaris. "I’m here every day hustling in practice and working hard. At the end of the day it is up to the coaches; if they feel I am ready to play then I’m ready to get that call. I feel that I’m ready, but until that time comes I’m going to continue working hard and hopefully before the season ends I get some chance to show what I’ve got."
The Earthquakes have eight games remaining in their season, and Luzunaris does not lack in confidence that he will make a contribution when called upon. It’s up to Yallop to give him the chance to prove he is up to the challenge.