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MLS Season Preview: Earthquakes use decision-day disappointment as motivation

You don’t get much closer to the playoffs than the San Jose Earthquakes did last season.

“Funny enough, if you look at the last game of the season, for about 20 minutes, we were in the playoffs,” San Jose coach Dominic Kinnear told Goal USA. “Unfortunately for us, Kansas City got it going and our result didn’t matter. But we had a little ray of hope up until the very end and it's something that’s going to motivate us going into the season.”

It was a far cry from the year before, when the Earthquakes won just six games and were nowhere near the postseason. Yet Kinnear, who was in year one of his second stint as Earthquakes coach, couldn’t help but feel a bit let down.

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“I wouldn’t say it was a big step forward,” he said. “It was a step forward, but anytime you don’t make the playoffs, you walk away disappointed.”

Despite that disappointment, the first year of Kinnear’s return to San Jose certainly saw a drastic improvement from what came before. From six wins in 2014 to 13 in 2015, the Earthquakes exceeded expectations. It wasn’t just a superficial improvement either — the team went from 50 goals conceded to 39, and a minus-15 goal differential to plus-2. Kinnear named the back line and goalkeeper David Bingham, who was called into U.S. national team camp in January, as his biggest positive takeaways from last season.

“David Bingham and the guys in front of him, all the guys, performed really well,” Kinnear said. “Bingham definitely took advantage of his opportunity to play. I think he had a good year and would expect an even better year this year.”

On the back line, Shaun Francis and Marvell Wynne look like the fullbacks with veteran Clarence Goodson occupying one of the center back spots. Offseason acquisition Andres Imperiale figures to fight for a spot alongside Goodson, but in the preseason Victor Bernardez has been the choice.

The midfield has plenty of competition, but at this point it appears Simon Dawkins, the team's big offseason pickup, Matias Perez Garcia and Anibal Godoy will feature. The other spot appeared to be up for grabs, but Panama international Alberto Quintero was brought in on loan last week and played the Earthquakes' final game of the preseason on the right side.

With a glut of good midfielders, one might think the Earthquakes could play five and go with a lone striker: U.S. international Chris Wondolowski. Kinnear, however, is wary of that.

“We’ll see. It’s important Chris is on the field. He’s such a great goal scorer for us,” Kinnear said. “Do I see Chris as a lone striker in this league? I’m not necessarily sure about that — I think he plays well with a partner. It’s easier for him to move around the box rather than being a guy teams can isolate on.”

That doesn’t mean Kinnear won’t use a different look.

“I know everyone thinks I’m ‘4-4-2, throw it out, let it roll,’ but for about two-thirds of last year, we were playing five in the midfield because of the personnel we had at our disposal,” he said. “When we made some pickups, that made it a little easier to base it down and go 4-4-2, which I think was a help for Chris.”

That means Wondolowski will likely spend much of the season paired with someone — Quincy Amarikwa has been the preseason choice, though designated player Innocent should also find himself in the mix.

The Earthquakes are not lacking of options and depth at any position on the field. Whether they can get that talent to play at a better level than last season, especially in the attack, will likely decide whether this season will be another step forward or a disappointment.


SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES PREVIEW

2015 Finish: Seventh in the Western Conference (13-13-8), missed the playoffs

Notable Additions: M Simon Dawkins, D Andres Imperiale, F Chad Barrett, GK Andrew Tarbell, M Alberto Quintero

Notable Losses: F Mike Fucito, M Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi, M Khari Stephenson, D Paulo Renato, GK Tomas Gomez, M Leandro Barrera, M J.J. Koval

Top Newcomer:Simon Dawkins. The Earthquakes improved defensively by leaps and bounds in 2015, but scored just six more times (35 to 41) than the previous season. In theory, Dawkins, who returns to San Jose after a two-year period in 2011 and 2012 in which he scored 14 times in 55 games, should help with that.

The versatile midfielder moved on from the Earthquakes, with a stint in the Premier League and multiple seasons in the Championship. He can play outside or inside, and Kinnear is hopeful he can help kill off games.

“When you’re sitting on a 1-0 lead, it can’t always just be the forwards,” Kinnear said. “It can be midfielders, who take it upon themselves to be the game-winner for you. That’s why we brought (Simon) back — he’s popular with the fans, popular in the locker room, but the most important thing for Simon is producing for us.”

Player to Watch:Matias Perez Garcia. Expected to be a threat from the No. 10 spot, Garcia didn’t put up eye-popping goal or assist numbers. But the midfielder actually had 78 chances created in 27 games — fourth best in the league — suggesting his performance may have been a bit underrated in 2015.

Still, Kinnear hopes Garcia, who likes to come deep for the ball, can remain higher up the field, where his skill and vision around the area can have maximum impact.

“I felt kind of bad for him last year because he is a good player and a lot of times when he would skip away from that first player, he was getting fouled,” Kinnear said. “A lot of those fouls were on the break and at midfield, so it kind of took away his influence on the team as we got closer to goal. We’ve asked him to be higher up the field at times because he’s so good in tight spaces and he can find that final pass.”

2016 Outlook: After just missing last year, can the Earthquakes get over the hump? The West should be a difficult battle again. But with a team that has a lot of players who are either young or in their prime years, and with another year in Kinnear’s system, it wouldn’t be shocking to see an improvement from 2015.

It will likely be close, but expect the Earthquakes to be in the mix for a playoff spot.