Getting back to things I started early in the season and that faded away, I relaunch Three Questions catching up with Robert Jonas over at Center Line Soccer. The Earthquakes sit at second in the West powered by a solid defense and Bobby Convey.
Here's the exchange and preview from their side.
Dave Clark: The 'Quakes defense seems much improved over last year. Is it the resurgence of Joe Cannon, talent on the backline or a tactical shift that should be credited?
Last season, the Earthquakes defensive corps suffered numerous injuries that disrupted the line-up from week to week. Unable to generate any consistency, the back line lost their cohesiveness and confidence as the season wore on, and Joe Cannon was torched for nearly 50 goals over the campaign. Ramiro Corrales and Bobby Convey were enlisted into the defense during the season, but neither player settled in completely. MLS veteran defender Chris Leitch, a preseason acquisition from the New York Red Bulls and looked at as a capable player when he joined the team, ended up being asked to anchor the back line at times and was voted the team’s defender of the year.
Entering 2010, the Earthquakes defensive core began to take form. Jason Hernandez was fully recovered from a horrific ankle injury suffered late in the season and was poised to take back his place in the center of defense. Leitch and Corrales were fully settled into their places on the wings, while Brandon McDonald and Bobby Burling expected to compete for the fourth spot on the back line. In the MLS Super Draft, John Doyle and Frank Yallop picked up three defenders, including Wake Forest standout Ike Opara. So impressive was Opara that even with him splitting time between San Jose and North Carolina for the better part of the spring, he was there in the starting line-up for the season opener against Real Salt Lake.
Tactically, a big change for the Earthquakes came after the 3-0 loss to RSL, when Yallop shifted McDonald into a defensive midfielder role in front of Hernandez and Opara (and later Burling). With a defensive triangle in front of goal, opponents have found little space to maneuver inside the box. The Earthquakes instead beg their opponents to shoot from distance — and take their chances that Cannon can stop the chances. To that effect, he has been superb between the posts, with five of the seven goals allowed being first-class efforts, including two MLS Goal-of-the-Week award winners.
Make no mistake; this is a motivated defensive unit this season that is working very hard to erase the painful memories of 2009. Add in contributions in defense from the Quakes wingers Bobby Convey and Joey Gjertsen, and this team has a chance to finish the MLS season near the top of the shut-out list.
Dave: Convey moved around a lot last year, but this year is stable at Left Wing. Is his performance strong enough to make the fans forget Huckerby?
Huckerby will never be forgotten, even though his stay was cut short by a season ending injury later in 2009. His dynamic runs and deft scoring touch are skills that Bobby Convey does not replicate. "Hucks" was also the type of personality that the fans gravitated toward. He wore his heart on his sleeve and never gave less than 100% effort when he was on the pitch.
Convey is finally settled in with the club at the left midfield position. Paired up with defender Ramiro Corrales on that side of the pitch, the two former U.S. Men’s National Teammates have quietly combined to be the most effective left-sided tandem in MLS. He is the perfect two-way player for Yallop’s 4-4-2 system that stresses speed on the wings, and is able to provide cover in defense when Corrales makes overlapping runs into the offensive third. Where Hucks was a scoring machine, Convey is the place-setter. His assist total so far this season is greater than all of last season, and he shows no signs of slowing down. A halftime benching from Yallop in the season opener got his attention — a moment Convey called the lowest point of his professional career — and he now has gained the respect of the Buck Shaw faithful for his work both on and off the ball.
Dave: This may surprise you, but Joey Gjersten is a local product who has made the step up from USL-1 to MLS. How's he fitting into the game at the next level?
Joey Gjertsen really burst onto the scene with his arrival in San Jose. Not an outwardly ambitious player, his workmanlike attitude and tactical awareness have helped him fit in nicely on the right side of the midfield. Given his experience playing more centrally in the USL, Gjertsen also possesses the ability to cut into the area and pick out teammates for scoring opportunities. His only goal in MLS came on a Bouna Coundoul howler in the 4-0 win against the Red Bulls a few weeks ago, but in training you see a player with a real nose for finding the spaces in the opposing defense to generate quality shots on goal.
Gjertsen has been somewhat slowed over the last couple weeks due to a sore hamstring, but Yallop has no plans to leave him out of the starting XI for the game this weekend in Seattle. It will be nice to see how he responds to being back in his home area; perhaps the Qwest Field crowd will give him a warm welcome.
We will have our Quick Reference Card out later today.