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Feb 23, 2009

Quakes still have question marks at forward

Editor's note: This is the fifth of 15 MLS team previews by ESPNsoccernet for the 2009 season. The sixth will be Colorado on Wednesday.

2008 record and finish: 8-13-9 (seventh place in Western Conference)

Key additions: M Bobby Convey, F Cam Weaver, M Aki Riihilahti, F Quincy Amarikwa, F Pablo Campos, G Andrew Weber

Key losses: M Francisco Lima, M Ronnie O'Brien, F Scott Sealy, D James Riley

Key questions facing this team:

1. Can the Quakes' stable of unproven forwards deliver?

As San Jose enters Year 2, it finds itself in much the same predicament as last year. Although the goalkeeping, defense and midfield spots are stocked with experienced performers, a huge question mark surrounds the front line, which remains devoid of proven MLS players.

Manager Frank Yallop made good on his pledge to get bigger and more powerful up top by signing 6-foot-4 Cam Weaver and acquiring 6-3 Pablo Campos in a weighted lottery. San Jose also drafted Quincy Amarikwa out of UC-Davis, and the Quakes expect big things from Davide Somma, who was acquired at midseason last year. One of the few strikers with any kind of MLS pedigree, Scott Sealy, left to play for Israeli side Maccabi Tel Aviv, leaving Ryan Johnson as perhaps the lone forward who has significant MLS experience, and that experience amounts to just 15 career MLS starts.

This reliance on unknown quantities amounts to a huge gamble on the part of Yallop and general manager John Doyle. If it works, they'll look like geniuses. If it doesn't, the Quakes once again will be desperately looking for front-line help come June. If last year is a guide, June might be too late.

MLS Primetime
March 19
Seattle vs. New York
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2. Will San Jose's midfield makeover pay off?

The front line isn't the only area of the field where Doyle and Yallop have gambled. The decision to cut loose Ronnie O'Brien and rely on Bobby Convey and Alvarez to pick up the offensive slack represents another calculated risk, albeit one where the odds are more in San Jose's favor.

Alvarez will take over O'Brien's spot on the right side of the midfield, and although the Houston native has played there in the past, his tendency to cut inside and have a crack at goal is a mirror image of what Darren Huckerby does on the opposite wing, meaning O'Brien's crossing ability and long-range passing won't be replaced easily.

Convey also represents something of gamble in that he'll line up in an attacking midfield role after spending most of his career on the left wing. Although Convey is solid defensively, he lacks the bite of the departed Francisco Lima, meaning Ramiro Corrales or the recently signed Aki Riihilahti will be plenty busy holding down the midfield fort. Convey is a crafty player who upgrades the team's attack, but adjusting to a new position means his success is by no means a sure thing.

3. Can Darren Huckerby duplicate last season's scintillating form?

Although the Quakes' late run at a playoff spot was caused by a variety of factors, Huckerby provided the biggest impact when he delivered six goals and four assists in 14 games. The tendency is to think he'll easily surpass those totals in 2009, but that won't be as easy as it seems.

Huckerby remains one of the most exciting players in the league to watch, but it was clear by the end of last season that not only had the Quakes relied heavily on the Englishman for offense, teams also had begun to design tactics to stop him. The sight of Chivas USA's Jonathan Bornstein lining up at right midfield, then dropping deep to help mark Huckerby is just one example.

Of course, the amount of space Huckerby is allowed will be in direct proportion to the effectiveness of his teammates. If players such as Alvarez, Convey and Weaver provide a threat that teams respect, Huckerby likely will be just as effective as he was in 2008. If not, expect plenty of double-teams on his side of the field.

Biggest X factor: Bobby Convey

It's been almost five years since Convey last wore an MLS jersey, but unlike his tenure with D.C. United, when the Philadelphia native was a complementary player, he'll be asked to quarterback the Quakes' attack, and the team will rely heavily on his performance.

John Harkes' Take:
"I think they did a great job in terms of picking up Darren Huckerby. That was the No. 1 signing for them. It was a completely different team when he stepped on the field. It just made it exciting, creating one-on-one situations. He can open up the game for other players. So now this year, the biggest international signing would be Bobby Convey, the U.S. player that comes back from Reading. He hasn't played for a good year now and has gone through many injuries, which doesn't bode well. But they should be a team with a little more organization, they've got Arturo Alvarez, who they picked up at the end of last year, too. And hopefully they can start off with a challenge to the Western Conference right from the start."

True, much will depend on how quickly the new forwards adapt to MLS, but if Convey is unable to unlock opposition defenses from the center of the field, teams will feel free to clamp down on Huckerby and Alvarez out wide, leaving the front line starved of the service it needs. But a creative, dynamic Convey could make everyone around him better.

Convey spent much of the past two years on the bench while at English side Reading, meaning he'll need to shake off some considerable rust while adapting quickly to his new role.

Breakout player to watch: Cam Weaver

Of all the forwards San Jose acquired during the winter, the one with the fattest résumé is Weaver. He not only was the USL-1 Rookie of the Year with Seattle back in 2006 but also scored at a respectable clip during his two-year stint with Norwegian second division side FK Haugesund, with 21 goals in 51 league and cup appearances.

Yallop also expects Weaver to provide a physical presence with his hold-up play and ability to bring others into the attack.

Johnson is another player who could be poised for a big season. The Jamaican tallied five times last season as a super sub/spot starter, and the forward is off to a solid start in preseason, having scored three times in his first two games. Johnson provides strength and power up front, and when paired with Weaver, he helps give the Quakes an imposing presence up top.

Outlook

Expansion teams tend to get a free pass during their first season, but the second year brings increased expectations. With seven teams set to miss the playoff party this year, reaching the postseason won't be easy for San Jose.

Certainly, the team has the defensive pieces in place to qualify for the playoffs. Goalkeeper Joe Cannon remains one of the best in MLS, and the back line, led by Jason Hernandez and Nick Garcia, was the fourth-stingiest in the league last season despite being hamstrung by a pop-gun attack for the first half of the season. The arrival of Riihilahti should allow Corrales to move to his more natural left back position, meaning the defense could be even better than last season.

The midfield also has more quality in depth than it did a year ago, with Ned Grabavoy, Kelly Gray and Shea Salinas doing much to augment a solid starting group. Rookie Brad Ring had shown promise but is out for the year with a bad hip.

But the colossal question marks surrounding Convey and the forwards appear to be too much to overcome. Although it's true that players such as Weaver and Campos have professional experience overseas, that is by no means a guarantee of MLS success, and the Quakes will need their trio of new attackers to step up and have stellar seasons. Add it all up, and a postseason slot for the Quakes likely is another year away.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.

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