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Earthquakes in steady hands

Taking over for a team that is coming off a championship season is the rarest of circumstances for a coach. Tim Floyd encountered that in Chicago in 1998 when he took over for Phil Jackson after the Bulls had won their third straight championship. Mike Martz went through it in 2000 after succeeding the wildly-popular Dick Vermeil with the St. Louis Rams. In many ways, it's a situation that former MetroStars coach Carlos Queiroz is experiencing right now in his first year as Real Madrid's manager after the firing of Vicente del Bosque last summer. Yet, no matter how many other instances one could find where a new coach takes over a defending champion throughout the sporting world, it's doubtful that the change would go as smooth as it has gone for Dominic Kinnear with the San Jose Earthquakes, thus far, since replacing Frank Yallop this past off-season. In fact, the naming of Kinnear as the new head coach after Yallop took over as manager of the Canadian National Team will undoubtedly be the most seamless transition the league has ever seen, as the two ex-teammates for the Tampa Bay Mutiny share similar beliefs as far as system of play and coaching style. "All the players would agree that we wanted him to take over when Frank left," said San Jose midfielder Landon Donovan. "They are from the same mold and they have the same philosophies and ideas. It just makes it nice that there's not much different about our team except the fact that Frank is not here." Donovan is right. The Earthquakes didn't have much turnover after winning their second MLS Cup title in three years last November. The only question mark heading into the winter was that of 31-year-old midfielder Ronnie Ekelund, but he re-signed with the league in February, as did right-sided midfielder Brian Mullan and captain Jeff Agoos. Outside of the trade that sent Manny Lagos -- a versatile midfielder and leader who will be missed -- to the Crew and the waving of troubled striker Rodrigo Faria, the team that hoisted the Alan I. Rothenberg trophy last fall remains intact. And Kinnear certainly doesn't plan on fixing something that's not broken.

Preview Week
Marc Connolly will continue to look at the season ahead:

Wed., March 31: L.A. newcomer Jovan Kirovski; Kicking It with ... John Harkes
Thurs., April 1: Fearless Freddy Adu; The Other Rookie
Fri., April 2: D.C. debut for Adu; Chat at 5 p.m. ET

"I plan on keeping it the same way with the team and being as honest as I can," he said, "which should be easy because it's the same group and most of the players know me well from the three years we've been together." The word "honest" is one that Kinnear uses often, and a policy he practices on a daily basis with the team. Being open with the players is something he admired about Yallop during his three years as his assistant coach. "You talk about an open-door policy to the coach's office," said Kinnear, who earned 56 caps with the U.S. National Team as a midfielder from 1990-94. "He takes time to talk to guys all the time. And he's always so honest with them and up front, that they respect him no matter what. In fact, I wish he was my coach because I'd still be playing right now. He makes the game that enjoyable." Kinnear plans on utilizing the same style in his first season as a head coach, yet he realizes that his new job will have several added pressures that he didn't experience as an assistant. "The biggest adjustment is I have to make the decisions and I have to stand by those," he said. "Frank would ask me for my opinion, but he would be the one to make the decision. If it went wrong it always came back to Frank." Of course, Kinnear will have some leeway in San Jose. After all, he's been a part of two MLS Cup-winning teams the past three years, and has been credited on several occasions by Yallop for his individual work with young players on the team such as last year's surprise standout Jamil Walker. Plus, Kinnear has a long legacy in the area, not only having grown up in nearby Fremont as a fan of the San Jose Earthquakes in the NASL, but also as a standout player both up the road for the San Francisco Blackhawks of the APSL and for the Earthquakes -- then known as the Clash -- in 1997. One of Kinnear's teammates with the Blackhawks was 33-year-old defender Troy Dayak, who is one of his starters with the Earthquakes and is a player who gave Kinnear an emphatic endorsement when he was asked about who the next coach should be late last fall. "My first choice was Dominic Kinnear without even hesitating," said Dayak, one of three Earthquakes entering his ninth year in the league along with Agoos and Ramiro Corrales. "I know that he has the endorsement of all of the guys on the team. He has been in the trenches with us, and when you have a guy who has been there with you through everything, you gain a lot of respect for that person." Kinnear further earned the respect of several players in the 'Quakes locker room when he didn't stand in the way of Donovan when his star striker was pursuing an opportunity to go to Portsmouth of the English Premier League on loan until after May 15 and potentially miss the team's first seven games of the MLS season. "I'd rather have him try his luck over there than being with us and wondering, 'What if?'" said Kinnear at the time. "He's meant so much to us and MLS. There's no way I'm going to step in his way." The deal fell through, but the message the new head coach sent was still felt throughout the team. With the start of the ninth MLS season just days away, it is clear that once again the Earthquakes are in a position to win the Western Conference and contend for their third MLS Cup title. And, fortunate for the 'Quakes, they are seemingly flying under the radar screen this week heading into their season opener against D.C. United since the soccer public is currently consumed with Freddy Adu -- for good reason -- and how he'll do in his first professional match on Saturday. "Our job is to try to avoid the media and try to concentrate on the 90 minutes on Saturday," said Kinnear. "We do know that Freddy Adu is a very talented player and will be highlighted. And rightly so. Everything he's done is great for MLS and great for all the players in the league. I don't look at it as a story line. I look at it as an opening game. It's a good way to start the season - on national television against a good opponent. "Sooner or later you're going to have to play on the road anyway. Whether it's the first or third game of the year, we just want to get started because the preseason has been going on for quite a while now and we're just looking forward to playing MLS games." Despite the parity that exists throughout the league and the changes that other playoff teams made to better themselves this past off-season, Kinnear has every reason to believe his side will rise to the top once again in 2004. "I feel the squad we have, when healthy, is one of the better teams in MLS, and I know it's going to be a difficult road this season given we are defending champions," he said. "It's also a year of World Cup qualifiers and we will be missing players at different times. But I have confidence in the squad that it will be another successful season for us." That means winning it all once again to become the first MLS side to pull off back-to-back title runs since Bruce Arena and D.C. United did in 1996 and 1997. Said Kinnear: "That's our primary goal going into this year - to repeat." Floyd failed miserably for the Bulls without MJ or Pippen to lean on. Martz made it to the Super Bowl with the Rams in the first year before losing to the New England Patriots by way of an Adam Vinatieri kick. And Queiroz's fate still hangs in the wind as Real Madrid leads Spain's La Liga by one point and remains on course for a blockbuster meeting with the Arsenal-Chelsea winner in the semifinal round of the UEFA Champions League. Maybe Kinnear will be the one to reverse the trend and successfully help his team defend its championship in his first year as a head coach. Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: shaketiller10@yahoo.com.