HARRISON, N.J. (AP) – Before the season began, if you were taking suggestions on who would be leading the stacked MLS Western Conference mid-way through the season, you could have heard any number of suggestions. The LA Galaxy, Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake would have dominated most of the projections, with FC Dallas a dark horse for some.
One team that wouldn't have merited much consideration, certainly not outside of Northern California, is the San Jose Earthquakes. Coming off a rough 2011 season that saw the team miss the playoffs amid a flurry of injuries, the Earthquakes didn't pull off any high-profile off-season moves and came into the year more as an afterthought than a serious contender.
San Jose has shattered those pre-season ideas about their potential. Thanks to some surprising contributions from some new faces, as well as banner years from some key players, the Earthquakes are sitting in first place in the West. This past week they rallied for late road wins against Colorado and Real Salt Lake, with Saturday's 2-1 victory against RSL helping them climb into first place.
Chris Wondolowski scoring goals is no surprise, he has been tied for the league lead the past two years, but it has been a number of outstanding contributions from some surprising sources that have made the different for the Earthquakes. Alan Gordon has emerged as a super sub, scoring clutch goals to help San Jose steal late points repeatedly in the past two months, while other players like Justin Morrow, Steven Beitashour and Rafael Baca have emerged to be some of the most consistent and underrated contributors in the league.
The biggest credit for this season's success has to go to head coach Frank Yallop and general manager John Doyle, who made some shrewd off-season acquisitions to bolster the squad. Centerback Victor Bernardez and midfielder Shea Salinas were key to the team's early-season success, while Marvin Chavez has given the Earthquakes some dynamic wing play as well as a light-hearted presence in the locker room.
Then you have bad boy forward Steven Lenhart, who has shown his ability to score goals as well as get under the skin of his opponents, as well as the impressive play of Gordon, who has rejuvenated his journeyman career yet again.
With so many players contributing, and playing well, San Jose is never short of players to step up each week, and the Earthquakes have made late-game heroics their speciality this season.
The trick for Yallop and his team now will be dealing with the expectations of being the hunted instead of the hunter. Nobody is writing the Earthquakes off anymore and any notion of their season being a fluke has faded away with each impressive victory they have delivered.
The next week will give the Earthquakes a chance to really solidify their standing as the team to beat in MLS. They face defending champion Seattle Sounders in the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals on Tuesday at home, then they play host to the suddenly rejuvenated Los Angeles Galaxy on Saturday.
If they can pull off a pair of victories, and thereby ending Seattle's dominance of the U.S. Open Cup as well as halting the Galaxy's revival, San Jose will set themselves up with a chance of being in position to potentially win a treble this year. Yes, there is still half an MLS season to play, and plenty of teams have enjoyed strong first halves only to fade in the summer, but the Earthquakes have boasted the kind of depth and resilience that suggests it would be foolish to not take them seriously. They have already spent half a season showing us all what a mistake that can be.
NEW FEELINGS IN PHILADELPHIA
Last week, after a tough 1-0 loss to D.C. United, the feeling in the Philadelphia Union locker room was one of disappointment, but there was also an air of optimism. The Union had played well, and players spoke privately about feeling a more relaxed atmosphere in the locker room after the departure of head coach Peter Nowak.
Those good vibes translated into a resounding 4-0 victory on Saturday against a Sporting Kansas City side that came into the match sporting the stingiest defense in the league. Forward Jack McInerney, who never saw much playing time under Nowak, scored a pair of goals in his second straight start, while rookie Antoine Hoppenot showed some good signs as well, drawing a penalty and chipping in a clever late goal.
The victory snapped a six-match winless streak for the Union, but more importantly the victory has instilled some much-needed confidence into a young team that will be eager to respond under new interim head coach John Hackworth, who has done his part by playing some younger players who hadn't seen many minutes under Nowak.
Along with McInerney, Amobi Okugo is another player who has made the most of minutes given under Hackworth. A defensive midfielder by trade, Okugo made his second straight start at centerback and looked sharp there for a second straight match.
The Union are well behind the pack in the Eastern Conference playoff race, currently nine points off the pace, but with multiple games in hand and a considerable amount of allocation money to make some summer acquisitions, Philadelphia is definitely a team to watch for this summer. Hackworth looks intent on playing Philadelphia's young talent, and if they respond and can add a quality striker and centerback, the Union should drive their way back into the playoff picture.
This Week's Best in MLS
Player of the Week - Landon Donovan: The LA Galaxy star was the driving force in the Galaxy's two-win week. He scored a pair of goals in the Galaxy's mid-week comeback victory against Real Salt Lake last Wednesday, then delivered a goal and assist in LA's 3-0 thrashing of the Vancouver Whitecaps. The victories helped propel the Galaxy into fifth place in the West, which happens to be the final playoff spot in the conference.
Rookie of the Week - Antoine Hoppenot. The speedy Union forward and Princeton product provided a spark off the bench for the second straight week. This past weekend, he helped seal Philadelphia's rout of Sporting Kansas City by drawing a penalty and then scoring his own goal on a beautiful chip.
Team of the Week - San Jose Earthquakes. The comeback kids managed to pull off late victories on the road twice in one week. First, they erased a 1-0 deficit to beat Colorado on Wednesday, then they rallied late with some quality second-half goals to beat Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium and move into first place in the Western Conference.