MLS First Kick - Real Salt Lake at San Jose Earthquakes 3 questions

RSLatSJ

One of the most popular features last year was the ability to exchange 3 question with a blogger representing the opposing team that RSL would face each week.  Well that feature is going to be back bigger and better than ever as SB Nation has 13 MLS blogs up and running today, with more coming within days.  I was able to exchange questions with San Jose Blogger Robert Jonas who writes for Quake, Rattle and Goal which will be launching on the SB Nation within days.

Here is my first question for him:

The offseason saw a lot of action for the Quakes, huge movement on getting a new stadium built, and perhaps even more movement of players with Cannon, Alvarez, Glen, Geovanni, and Eduardo going out and a good number coming in. 

So question #1 how do you think the off the pitch stuff like the new stadium coming will impact the team in 2011?   

Answer: Perhaps unique for the Earthquakes among MLS teams that are building or who have built soccer specific stadiums in the past is that their training grounds reside adjacent to the proposed new stadium site, so when demolition began earlier in March to clear the land of old industrial factories and warehouses, the activity was happening right in front of the team. Every day the players will conduct practice to a cacophony of excavators, land movers, and other supersized Tonka trucks setting the soundtrack to a year that promises them a new home away from tiny Buck Shaw Stadium. 

When talking to the players and coaches, especially those that have been with the team since their rebirth in 2008, there is palpable excitement at the prospect of playing in a stadium they can call their own. While that is unlikely to happen before the start of the 2013 season, the anticipation finally began when demolition efforts were initiated in earnest only weeks ago. The pride that comes with the impending sensation of "home ownership" should translate to a more motivated squad that will want to start the tradition of creating a fortress-like environment greeting visiting opponents in their remaining games at Buck Shaw stadium. 

The rest of my questions after the jump:

Question #2, which outgoing player will be missed most and which new player will be the most likely to make a difference for the team in 2011?

Answer: Two players that will be missed by the club in 2011 will be Arturo Alvarez, now with Real Salt Lake, and designated player Geovanni, whose contract was not renewed by MLS. Alvarez proved to be a very effective, albeit expensive, attacking option for the Earthquakes during the latter half of the season and into the playoffs. So dangerous on the right side, especially on counterattacks, midfielder Joey Gjertsen will need to stay healthy for the whole 2011 season and be effective on the right wing in order to make up for the loss of the Salvadorian International. Geovanni was heralded as the attacking player missing in the Earthquakes offense when he was signed as the club's first-ever DP in August of 2010, and he certainly helped the team make the playoffs, but his impact on the field did not justify his high salary and he was allowed to leave MLS at the conclusion of the season.

Looking at the fresh faces in camp, a great deal of expectations have been heaped upon forward Steven Lenhart as the target forward head coach Frank Yallop has desired in his 3 years with the Earthquakes. Acquired in a draft day deal with the Columbus Crew, Lenhart is currently recovering from minor knee surgery, but will be ready to take the field again by the start of April. Technically not a new face for the Earthquakes, holding midfielder Sam Cronin has cemented his place in the starting XI and should benefit from starting the season with the team. His pick-up from Toronto FC during Preki's reign of terror was a steal for San Jose, and the familiarity he has built with his teammates since his arrival heralds a great leap forward in the Earthquakes' efforts to play a more possession style of soccer.

The wildcard signing by the Earthquakes this preseason has been Simon Dawkins, an English midfielder on loan from San Jose's partner club Tottenham Hotspur. He trained with the club during their training stint at Spurs Lodge in February, and is expected to feature prominently for the Earthquakes immediately upon arrival in the United States. Often injured earlier in his career, the 23-year old is back to full health and impressed coach Yallop with his technical skills and nose for creating scoring opportunities. He went on to say of Dawkins that he should be an impact player in MLS this season    

Question #3, Chris Wondolowski accounted for 53% of the Quakes offense in 2010 with his 18 goals, no other player had more than 3 goals for the team, are the Quakes a one trick pony and can they ride the Wonderkid to another shot at the playoffs this year?

Answer: One player does not carry a team to the MLS playoffs - and Wondolowski wasn't any different for the Earthquakes in 2010 despite his gaudy scoring record. Excellent build-up in the attacking third from Bobby Convey and Ryan Johnson, among others helped set-up Wondo on many of the 18 goals he tallied en route to winning the MLS Golden Boot award. For Johnson, the team's leading scorer in the 2009 season with 11 goals, he tallied a career high 8 assists in 2010 proving his versatility in the Earthquakes offensive. He's proven he can score at the MLS level, and will be expected to lessen the load on Wondolowski.

But the real question is whether an offense that statistically appears to lean so heavily on one goal-scorer can return to the MLS Cup playoffs this season, and the answer is a resounding yes. Wondolowski is not so much a creator of scoring opportunities, but rather a finisher. Clinical with his one-touch shots on target, Wondo punctuated the positive efforts of the Earthquakes' attacking core with his goal scoring binge in 2010. It is not really a question of can he pace the team in scoring again, but that he needs to be that reliable finisher for San Jose to again see post-season soccer in 2011.

Of course no round of 3 questions would be complete if I didn't return the favor of answering some questions that linger in the minds of the other side of this opening weekend's match. So here are the questions Robert had for me:

#1 With so much focus by Real Salt Lake during their preseason on the CONCACAF Champions League knockout rounds, where do they stand mentally and physically going into the MLS regular season? Have preparations to face the San Jose Earthquakes been an afterthought for the team?     

Answer: It was clear last year in the group stages of the Champions League that RSL was going to make it a top priority, not only to do well but to win the tournament, and that had them focused and ready to go earlier than ever this year.  Having to play a very physical Saprissa team on Tuesday has left the team banged up and bruised for this weekend, MLS Defender of the Year Jamison Olave is out with a hamstring injury, and both Chris Wingert and Arutro Alvarez are listed as probably with minor injuries, those injuries will clearly impact the team as they head into their MLS opener.  

I asked a number of players about having to focus on plaing both Saprissa and San Jose this week and each of them said they were focused on the match in front of them, given the huge 2-0 win over Saprissa I was a bit worried that some might be thinking about the April 5th second leg, but then I remembered who is the coach of the team and I know that Jason will have them focused on the task at hand.    

#2 Arturo Alvarez was an exciting player for Earthquakes supporters to watch in his time in San Jose, but he would often frustrate those same fans with a style of play that was very one-dimensional. Since moving to RSL, has head coach Jason Kreis worked with the Salvadorian midfielder to expand beyond his dependency to play left-footed and into more of a well-rounded player?    

Answer: I believe that Jason and staff had been on the wrong side of Arturo's abilities often enough that they knew he could be a dangerous player for them as well, but a big change is the fact that RSL's style of play demands that everyone plays defense and that can be a challenge for offensive minded players to adjust to.  When asked about joining RSL Arturo made it clear that he was excited for the opportunity to play with a team who had a style of play that may more closely match his abilities than some other teams.  I understand the frustrations of many fans in San Jose, and clearly if he is going to see much action for RSL he will have to become a better all around player, as well as learn to play to his weaker right foot, having watched him practice with the team a number of times already this year I can say that he has come in with the right attitude and is working hard to become an asset to his new club, but a lot of questions still remain on how effective he will be. The move has me expecting big things but for RSL fitting into the scheme is often the most important big thing, but I expect his numbers to move up from 2010.

#3 Real Salt Lake, by virtue of being the last MLS team in the CCL is backed by fans across the country to strive for victory in that tournament. With the U.S. Open Cup and 2011 edition of the CCL coming up this summer, is the team built for the additional matches on the schedule, and what effect will all that extra playing time have on the team's quest to reach the summit of the MLS standings in 2011 and return to the MLS Cup Final?    

AnswerA great question, I have been amazed by the support of MLS fans around the league as RSL pursues a Champions League title and I have to believe that should they make it to the finals that we will see the national and league pride raised to new levels.  RSL head coach Jason Kries has stated that he believes that he worked too many key players too hard last summer and that it hurt RSL when the playoffs came around, so I expect that RSL will use their depth (many say they are the deepest club in MLS) more this year but RSL is built to win trophies now and into the future.  The team has locked in most of their core players to long term deals and they have a hunger to prove themselves on the pitch, it may be small market syndrome but many RSL players have a chip on their shoulder about things like not getting but 4 national TV appearances this year, despite many picking them as one of the top teams in the league.

I looked at the year ahead early on and coined the hashtag #TheQuad, as I believe that RSL could be the first MLS team to capture the 4 top trophies available to them, the Champions League, the LHUSOC (since they don't have to qualify this year) and of course the Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup.  If they do it, it will be because of players outside of their normal starting XI, it will be guys like Collen Warner, Paulo Jr., Chris Schuler, and Jean Alexandre who will be the difference makers if RSL are to compete for multiple trophies in 2011.    

There you go the first of what I expect will be many MLS season editions of 3 questions.

OFF MY SOAPBOX

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