- Jeff Carlisle, Soccer
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2012 record and finish: 19-6-9 (1st place in Western Conference, Supporters Shield winners)
Key questions facing this team:
1. Will the Goonies' sequel at least equal the original?
The cast of characters is largely the same, but it seems a stretch to expect San Jose to repeat last year's otherworldly streak of dramatic comebacks. Injuries to Alan Gordon, Steven Beitashour, Steven Lenhart, and Marvin Chavez -- all expected to miss the start of the season -- have already cut into the team's depth, and it's clear that San Jose will not sneak up on anyone this season. That said, the team's never-say-die spirit remains, allowing the Quakes to stay competitive even under the worst of circumstances.
2. How much will the team feel the loss of Simon Dawkins?
For all the talk about how direct the Quakes were, the reality was that San Jose's strength lay in its attacking variety. Sure, the likes of Lenhart and Alan employed a scorched-earth policy up top, and Chris Wondolowski was at his predatory best, but thanks in part to the presence of Dawkins, the Quakes could knock the ball about as well.
But now that EPL side Tottenham has loaned Dawkins out to Aston Villa, it remains to be seen how much San Jose's attack will miss his composure on the ball as well as his eight goals. There was hope that another Spurs player, John Bostock, would fill the void, but a club source confirmed that he won't sign with the club. This will put pressure on budding stars Sam Cronin and Rafael Baca to be more creative and manage tempo.
3. Can a better balance be achieved between attack and defense?
San Jose's penchant for epic fight-backs obscured an inconvenient truth. Defensively, the Quakes were not championship caliber, especially in transition. This was exposed during the playoffs against L.A., and Frank Yallop would no doubt prefer a bit more solidity in the back. That may require outside backs Beitashour and Justin Morrow to curb their attacking instincts, while asking center midfielders Cronin and Baca to stay home more often. It's a delicate balance to be sure, but if it can be found, perhaps that will be the ticket to fulfilling San Jose's championship dreams.
Biggest X-factor: Mike Fucito
With Lenhart and Gordon injured, Fucito has emerged as the preferred option up top alongside Wondolowski. At just 5-foot-9, the Harvard product gives San Jose a different look, but the hope is that his speed will stretch defenses in a way Lenhart and Gordon never could, and his tenacity fits in well with San Jose's approach. If he can chip in with the occasional goal until Lenhart and/or Gordon get back, it will go a long way toward allowing the club to weather this early spate of injuries.
Breakout player to watch: Shea Salinas
The departure of Dawkins and the knee injury sustained by Chavez have created openings out wide, and Salinas is poised pick up the slack. It should be noted that the San Jose winger was on his way to a stellar season last year before sustaining a broken collar bone. If Salinas can provide the kind of consistent service into the box that Yallop values, he could become an ever-present force in the lineup.
San Jose has largely stood pat in terms of personnel, with Yallop and general manager John Doyle opting to build depth, especially in the back. This normally represents an invitation to go backward, but many of the Quakes' conference rivals find themselves in varying states of flux.
For that reason, the Quakes should once again find themselves in the thick of the Western Conference race. Granted, the injury bug will need to be overcome, and more defensive solidity achieved, but the pieces are there. Jon Busch is solid in goal, and Victor Bernardez remains an intimidating force along the backline. The midfield, while lacking stars, is highly effective, especially when Chavez is on the field. And the combination of Wondolowski's poaching and the physicality provided by Gordon and Lenhart remains lethal.
A Supporters Shield repeat seems unlikely given the rise of teams such as Sporting Kansas City, but a return trip to the playoffs, while not guaranteed, is certainly within reach.