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Why Are the San Jose Earthquakes So Good?

Chris Wondolowski has scored a lot of goals.
Chris Wondolowski has scored a lot of goals.

While Timbers fans were watching their team get torn to bits in Colorado, the LA Galaxy were scoring three goals for the third straight match, this time against the first place San Jose Earthquakes. Those Timbers fans who decided to switch over to ESPN after the final whistle in Commerce City (or before -- I certainly wouldn't think any less of you if you cut away early) saw a performance that has been as rare for the Portland Timbers as it has been common for the Quakes -- a comeback victory.

Not just a comeback victory, but a confident one. Call it mental toughness, confidence, or just plain hard work, the Quakes are doing everything right, and they're consistently being rewarded with wins.

San Jose currently has the most points, the most wins, the fewest losses, the most goals scored, and the highest goal differential in all of MLS. Halfway through the season the Quakes are only two points and five goals shy of their 2011 season totals. They're on pace to score 70 goals and finish the season with 72 points.

All this after finishing the 2011 season in 7th place. How has this happened?

1. Chris Wondolowski (and, yes, Steven Lenhart)

First, some numbers, because I like numbers. Wondo has scored 14 goals in 15 appearances this season, as compared to 16 goals in 30 appearances last year. He is on pace to take roughly the same number of shots -- and the same number on target -- as last year, yet twice as many of those shots are on pace to hit the back of the net. Even in the high likelihood that these trends won't continue, Wondo's first half has been pretty astounding.

Why is this happening? You're going to hate me for saying this, but Steven Lenhart is a big reason for it.

Hate him or, well, hate him, Steven Lenhart has cynically and annoyingly demanded attention from opposing CBs, and that has helped give his strike partner much more room in front of goal. Lenhart's constantly throwing elbows, tripping, and generally pissing off opposing defenders, to such an extent that referees simply grow tired of constantly calling fouls.

What's worse: Lenhart has actually become a decent player. After a shaky start to the season, Lenhart has begun to read the game better, position himself more effectively, and combine better with his strike partner; the resulting confidence has made him even more dangerous as a target forward.

2. Marvin Chavez

The Earthquakes acquired Marvin Chavez from FC Dallas this past offseason to relatively little fanfare, especially compared to all the drama about whether they were going to have Simon Dawkins back for another year. But Chavez has become one of the Quakes most dangerous players, consistently burning defenders down the right flank and showing a quality on his crosses that has earned him seven assists already on the year, up from his 2011 total of four.

The speed, ball control, and passing ability he brings to the right wing allows him to drive into the penalty area, even as it opens up space in the middle for the attacking midfielders in the middle to create and orchestrate. His qualities make Chavez a huge part of a very potent offense.

3. Steven Beitashour

The San Jose defense has been the only seriously questionable area for the team. Among Western Conference teams only LA Galaxy and FC Dallas have allowed more goals than the Quakes. They are on pace to match their 2011 goals allowed total, which puts the team on shaky footing should their offensive effectiveness wane.

Still, Beitashour has emerged this year as possibly MLS' best attacking fullback, leading his counterparts with 6 assists. In combination with Chavez, San Jose's right wing is undoubtedly the strongest in the league, with 13 assists coming from those two players. Wow.

And defensively, too, Beitashour has done his job in chasing down the opposing wingers and herding them to the exits.

4. Depth

Here's a list of midfielders in no particular order: Marvin Chavez, Khari Stephenson, Rafael Baca, Ramiro Corrales, Simon Dawkins, Tressor Moreno, Sam Cronin, Shea Salinas. All of those midfielders are plenty good enough to start for any MLS team, but only four of them get to start on any given game day, because they all play for San Jose.

Having those eight guys on the roster has allowed Frank Yallop to remain competitive in spite of injuries and change the lineup around when the schedule is tight. Chavez, Baca, Corrales and Cronin started on Saturday; well rested players Salinas, Moreno and Stephenson may well get the nod on Tuesday, and the team won't lose a step.

5. Goonies never say die

The Quakes' 2012 season has become the realization of Sean Astin's famous line from The Goonies, which, indeed, has also been the team's unofficial motto. In fact, ten of San Jose's 36 points have resulted from late game heroics, mostly coming from former Timber Alan Gordon, who has scored at a rate of 1.4 goals per 90 minutes this season.

To put it another way, without Gordon & Co's late game-winners -- if the team had settled for the single point in all those games -- San Jose would currently be tied with Seattle and Vancouver for third place in the Western Conference. As it is, they're four points ahead of Salt Lake and the best team in the league.

Their standing at the top of the league is a result of a gritty, scrappy approach to the otherwise beautiful game. They much prefer to frustrate, rather than dominate. They won't often be up for goal of the week or get on highlight reels with gorgeous setups and smooth finishes; their goals come from tirelessly chasing down loose balls and flicking in shots with unlikely body parts.

Whether it will keep working is debatable, but it's undeniably working so far.