Quakes-Vancouver --what to watch for

April 7, 2012, 2:33 am
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Programming note: Catch the Earthquakes (3-1-0) vs. Vancouver Whitecaps (2-0-2) at 4 p.m. Saturday on Comcast SportsNet California.

Joe Washington

SAN JOSE -- Joe Cannon returns to Buck Shaw Stadium Saturday evening with an opportunity to help his Vancouver Whitecaps (2-0-2) set an MLS record for longest shutout streak at the start of a season. The longtime Earthquake still holds franchise records for appearances and shutouts and will be facing an Earthquakes team that is off to its best start since its return to San Jose five years ago.

Reports from the San Jose Mercury News said that chief rabble rouser and target forward Stephen Lenhart shut it down midway through practice Thursday with a tight hamstring and will be re-evaluated as to whether or not he will be able to play Saturday.

After missing half of last season with bereavement issues, Lenhart has progressively kicked more and more of the rust off his game and has become more and more of a factor. He's constantly in the middle of every dustup and relentlessly getting on the nerves of his opponents. Last week, he earned a penalty kick away from the ball by inducing a frustrated defender into tripping him in the penalty area 45 feet away from the ball. Chris Wondolowski proceeded to convert it for the games only goal.

Should Lenhart be unable to play, his absence should not have as drastic an impact as it did last year. In fact, it may make the Quakes even more dangerous. This could give coach Frank Yallop an opportunity to put a more skilled group on the field. It will be interesting to see if Tressor Moreno and Simon Dawkins will get an opportunity to play together. Neither saw significant minutes last week but have tremendous skill. Yallop could also call upon Turkish striker Sercan Guvenisik, who did some really impressive things in the preseason, especially when teamed with Wondolowski.

In eight combined matches this season, San Jose and Vancouver have yet to yield a goal in the run of play. The Quakes' lone goal came off a foul by goalie John Busch (and yes, it was a foul). Captain Ramiro Corrales came out of last weeks game in the second half with a sprained ankle. Yallop chose to replace him in the middle with veteran defender Jason Hernandez and move Justin Morrow to the outside left position. Many fans are eager to see Ike Opara on the field despite his struggles with the national team in the Olympic qualifiers, especially in the 2-0 loss to Canada.

In most sports, this is when the players or coaches would declare, somethings got to give, but in soccer, thats not necessarily true. The teams could play to a 0-0 tie and continue to prove their defensive prowess. My prediction is a 3-1 victory for San Jose. Goals by Dawkins, Moreno and Wondolowski.

Whats your prediction?

News and notesDefense key to early success
Four matches into the 2012 season and the San Jose Earthquakes have surrendered only one goal; and that off a penalty kick. They are proving to themselves and the rest of the league they are going to be a factor in the quest for the 2012 MLS Cup. Each year there is turnover on the roster, but the moves made this off season as a whole are the best management has made since the reformation of the team, especially on the defensive side of things.

Position by position, Frank Yallop has more quality players to choose from. The Quakes now have flexibility and options based on their opponents strengths which they have not shown in previous years. With the support of an aggressive combination of midfielders, it took most of the night for the explosive Seattle side to generate much offensively and the Quakes sent home about 40,000 Sounder fans unhappy.

San Jose has turned a massive weakness into one of its strengths. Through a series of moves and non-moves, management has put together a beautiful blend of developed young talent and veteran experience.

Victor Bernardez, the Honduran national team member, has been everything the Quakes said he would be and more. His tenacious attitude, size, strength, and fearlessness on the back line has virtually eliminated the seemingly weekly heartbreaks and bouts of bad luck that cursed the teams central defense last season. He is a closer defensively and is the main reason why the Quakes have held on to both of their 1-0 victories.

Equally impressive has been the growth of a couple of former mid-fielders on the back line, Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour. Morrow has been an Earthquake for a while biding his time on the reserve unit. The left footer has the speed to track down any striker in the MLS and has developed his decision playing in reserve matches over the years to the point now where he has the full confidence of his teammates in either a central or left side defender. He has good ball skills which also helps the Quakes build their attack from the back. Morrow waited a long time to get a chance to play and has not faltered in any of his chances. He has been truly impressive.
Beitashour steps up
Steven Beitashour is in his third season with the Quakes and the San Jose native has made the right back position his own. He has become a lock down defender on the right side, consistently making good decisions on when to pressure and how to jump the passing lanes, especially on long balls. His speed and ball skills have helped create many scoring opportunities for the Quakes as well. In 2011, he led the team with 7 assists in 22 games. The end-zone angle of his run in the Toronto on March 24th, which created Shea Salinas goal in the 56th minute, perfectly displayed his speed, sense of timing, elusiveness and touch with the ball.
Opara ready
Waiting in the wings for his opportunity to crack the line up is Ike Opara who has spent a lot of the early season busy with the US National U23 team. Over the course of the long season, the Quakes could present the leagues most athletic back four if Opara comes in to the middle with Bernardez and Morrow plays left while Beitashour anchors down the right side. It would be difficult for any club to match that groups ball skills or speed or athleticism.

Finally, there are the two veterans who are extremely important to this equation. Ramiro Corrales started the first 4 games as the left back, suffered an injury in the Seattle game. If the injury is not serious, he will continue to be a solid option for coach Yallop. Jason Hernandez took his place after the injury. Hernandez has started 99 matches for the Quakes and played in his 100th match for Frank Yallop when he went in for Corrales. He is a smart and solid alternative at central defender and should one of the others need to sit for any reason, he will do an admirable job.

The Quakes' turnaround from a truly miserable campaign in 2011 is built on a firm defensive foundation as sturdy as Victor Bernardez on the ball. Too many times last year San Jose gave up late goals that cost them points in the standings. To a man, most of the team feels like last years squad would have squandered the 1-0 victories they have this year and they are thrilled with the new pieces that are preserving their hard work.

Joe Washington is a coordinating producer with Comcast SportsNet Bay Area and Comcast SportsNet California.

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