1) What was the difference between the Supporters' Shield winning Earthquakes and the Earthquakes of 2014? Was it just age? Was it change of personnel? Something else?
For everything that went right in 2012, it went wrong in 2014. Chris Wondolowski, Steven Lenhart, and Alan Gordon had career years for the San Jose in its Supporters' Shield winning campaign -- 50 goals total for the trio, including Wondo's MLS record-tying 27. However, last season it was the opposite, as the former MLS MVP still tallied in double figures, but Lenhart was often injured and largely ineffective and Gordon failed to score for the Quakes (he did okay once he was traded to the LA Galaxy over the summer, much to the chagrin of the San Jose faithful). In 2012, on-loan playmaker Simon Dawkins was a force in the middle for the Frank Yallop's men; in 2014, on-loan playmaker Yannick Djalo was a on the trainer's table more often than he was on the field for Mark Watson's battered crew. That magical Goonies Never Say Die season set club records in a variety of offensive categories; last year's debacle was a low point in club history for wins in the MLS era. In short, it was everything from the coaching philosophy, to the health of players, to the will to win that made the difference between 2012 and 2014.
2) Tommy Thompson has shown flashes of brilliance. Is he the future of the Earthquakes? How good could he be?
Thompson is to date the only homegrown player signing the Quakes have ever made. The now 19-year-old showed moments of brilliance in his rookie campaign, both on loan with Sacramento Republic FC and with the first team in San Jose. By the end of summer, he was a regular call-up to the U-20 men's national team and featured for coach Tab Ramos' side in every game of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2015 U-20 World Cup. He scored his first goal for the Earthquakes in a late season friendly against CD Vida of Honduras, but Thompson has yet to net in an MLS game. Head coach Dominic Kinnear has said since the start of preseason that Thompson would be brought along slowly in 2015, and that the talented teenager still needed to earn his way into the match-day 18 on a weekly basis. The NorCal native is definitely the future of the Quakes, but with his national team duty and designated player Matias Perez Garcia ahead of him in the starting XI, he is not the present in San Jose.
3) Among U.S. Men's National Team fans around the country (or at least among my soccer friends), Wondolowski took and continues to take flack for missing the goal-scoring opportunity against Belgium in the 2014 World Cup. How did Earthquakes fans react to that? Has it affected Wondolowski either positively or negatively?
Earthquakes fans have always supported their captain, and the overall feeling when he missed that shot at the World Cup was one of shear disappointment. After all, these same supporters had seen Wondolowski break virtually every offensive club record over the last few seasons wearing Earthquakes blue and black, and in the Gold Cup the summer prior capture a share of that tournament's Golden Boot award. The disappointment of The Miss was as much for the missed opportunity to send the U.S. men's national team through to the next round of the World Cup as it was seeing Wondolowski's chance to be forever known among the greatest American soccer heroes sail high and wide of the target. "You had one job, Wondo!" is not a refrain that San Jose supporters shout to the heavens like fans across the rest of the country did that afternoon; he has been getting that job done for the Quakes almost without fail.
And, of course, the reverse
1) Real Salt Lake has been known for years as a team that likes to possess the ball and control the center of the midfield. Is that that still the modus operandi in Sandy, or has head coach Jeff Cassar changed the system at RSL?
My sense early on is that the focus is shofting slightly to more of top-heavy approach and a bit less of a possession-oriented approach. That is not to say that RSL will not try to possess the ball and make good passing decisions to wear teams out, but I'd the first three games of this season have been any indication, the possession battle seems to matter a little less than in years past. That said, the formation change is due to personnel strengths and Cassar has said the diamond is still a weapon up their sleeve. Who knows when he will use it again?
2) Earthquakes fans are familiar with the exploits of Tommy Thompson with the U-20 men's national team, but what should they know about Luis Gil, both for club and country?
Luis Gil, by all accounts, is poised for a breakout season. He was hampered by a nagging injury for the better part of last year and was never really able to get in rhythm. He is truly a team player with playmaking ability. He regularly captains the US teams that he has been a part of. Honestly, the biggest impediment to him driving the RSL offense is a guy named Javier Morales who just seems to be getting better every year. Morales has had career seasons the past couple seasons. It looks like the coaching staff is committed to giving Gil consistent minutes this year so the jury's out on his potential.
3) A lot of eyebrows were raised when center back Nat Borchers departed for Portland. Has the RSL defense lost a step in replacing the Wildling with former MLS Defender of the Year Jamison Olave?
Personally, I don't think RSL has lost a step. The difference between Borchers and Olave are positioning and smarts versus freakish athleticism and presence. At worst, RSL came out even at the end of the day. At best, the Chris Schuler-Jamison Olave partnership could be one of the best CB partnerships in the league with a bit of experience together. I think RSL had to pull the trigger on Borchers before his stock went down.
Rimando, Mansally, Schuler, Olave, Beltran, Beckerman, Mulholland, Morales, Garcia, Saborio, Allen