Strong's Notes: Plenty More to Offer

John Strong examines a stacked San Jose squad that has no Designated Player

San Jose Earthquakes, 2012 #2

Photo Credit: 
(Getty Images)

Just days after facing a large emotional hurdle against their biggest rivals, the Portland Timbers will on Wednesday attempt to summit the very physical hurdle of the best team in MLS this year, the San Jose Earthquakes (7:30pm PT KPDX, 750 AM The Game / La Pantera 940). Amidst a run of three games in eight days—against the top three teams in the Western Conference no less—and with a few key contributors injured, it’s a big chance for the Timbers to step up and try to continue what had been their positive momentum through the end of August.

There’s no ‘DP’ in T-E-A-M
Regardless of your partisan disposition, what the San Jose Earthquakes have done in 2012 should be regarded as nothing short of remarkable. A year removed from a seventh-place-of-nine finish in the Western Conference—and two seasons from their run to the “Eastern Conference” final, which pundits were more than happy to regard as a fluke—a team seemingly flush with MLS journeymen, and without any high-priced stars, is putting together a record-breaking campaign.

The Earthquakes have surpassed or are approaching their own records, which date to the league’s creation in 1996 don’t forget, in wins, points, quickness to clinch a playoff berth, goals, late goals…the list goes on. On pace for their first Supporters’ Shield since 2005—the final season before the original ‘Quakes moved to Houston—highly regarded coach Frank Yallop has led his team to four wins in their last five, and a 15-game unbeaten run at Buck Shaw Stadium which stretches back to August of last year.

Of particular note, and fitting with their “Goonies Never Say Die” mantra this season, is their league-record seven stoppage time goals, which have earned them five wins, and a draw, they wouldn’t otherwise have; that’s 11 points in the standings.

Wondo Keeps It Rolling
The chief architect of this success is one of the great recent stories of American soccer, Chris Wondolowski. The 29-year-old scored seven goals in his first five seasons, spent mostly with the reserves in Houston, and augmented by youth coaching jobs on the side. Since the beginning of the 2010 season, he’s scored a staggering 53 goals, 19 of them this year—a career high and the current league lead—and of those 19, 9 have officially been game winners, tying the league record.

What’s interesting is that “Wondo” is actually in a bit of a slump right now, by traditional standards: he has just two goals, both from the penalty spot, in the last two months. While he insists one can’t be slumping while one’s team is winning, it’s also true that he’s helping out in other ways; his seven assists this year are equal to his previous career total, and given that he lost last year’s scoring title on an assist tiebreaker, it has ulterior benefits as well.

Plenty More To Offer
However, one goalscorer does not a league leader make. Alongside Wondolowski is former USL-era Timber Alan Gordon, who’s not only finally found comfort after a few previous stops in his career, but his six goals in the last seven games has given San Jose a pair of double-digit teammates for the first time since 1997. Goalkeeper Jon Busch has been one of the underrated shot-stoppers in MLS in his 12 year career; outside back Ramiro Corrales is the last man left standing from the league’s inaugural season; winger Simon Dawkins, on loan from partner club Tottenham Hotspur, has scored four of his seven goals in the last month; and beware Steven Lenhart, the team’s de-facto mascot, who’s penchant for late magic, and mischief, is a huge part of why they’ve done what they’ve done.

And yet, the Timbers should hopefully take confidence into Wednesday night: they stopped the Quakes three-game win streak with a 2-1 victory at home in early July, and San Jose is one of four teams—Chicago, Vancouver and Philadelphia the others—the Timbers have played against multiple times in their brief MLS history, and never lost to. Another positive result would be a big part of this team’s hopeful strong finish from 2012 into 2013.