SAN JOSE -- The Earthquakes basically stood pat after their uplifting run to the MLS Supporters' Shield as the team with the best record.
Now, in a league full of upgraded rosters and confronting a taxing 2013 schedule, are the Quakes poised for an MLS Cup or a hard dose of reality?
Coach Frank Yallop, whose team opened camp for the new season Monday, is clearly expecting the former.
"We had some terrific performances, not just individually but collectively as a team," Yallop said. "Why mess with that? This group's a strong group. Why change what's done well in our league? ... Most of the big players from last year are obviously back, and we'll be adding some players to that."
The gung-ho club returns almost intact after a 2012 thrill ride in which it scored 72 goals and delivered a league-record nine strikes in stoppage time. The season ended against the Los Angeles Galaxy in the MLS Western Conference semifinals just 21/2 months ago.
Like their coach, Quakes players expect another step forward.
"Our final goal is to hold the championship at the end," veteran defender Jason Hernandez said last week. "It's definitely, for myself, a huge motivating factor coming into this year, and I would imagine a lot of my teammates all feel the same way."
Depth will be critical again as the Quakes must negotiate a rugged MLS schedule along with U.S. Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League play -- the latter a reward for having the best record in 2012. They open March 3 at Buck Shaw Stadium against Real Salt Lake.
Along those lines, making their camp debuts on Monday were the club's two draft picks last week: defender Tommy Muller of Georgetown (No. 15 overall) and midfielder Dan Delgado of University of San Diego (No. 33), along with veteran forward Mike Fucito, whom the Quakes acquired in a draft-day deal with the Portland Timbers for a second-round pick.
Also on hand were re-entry draft selections defenders Dan Gargan and Ty Harden.
Several key people were missing on a light day of conditioning. Target forwards Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon remain out after offseason procedures, Gordon having had a left hip arthroscopy to fix a torn labrum and Lenhart a right knee arthroscopy on his lateral meniscus.
"A lot of players are out right now with international duty or with a few injuries and guys recovering from surgery, but in general good," Yallop said of the first day of camp. "We had a good meeting this morning. We're just kind of loosening up and getting through the first few days, not pushing too much."
Absent were MLS Player of the Year Chris Wondolowski and Justin Morrow, who are training with the U.S. national team for its Jan. 29 friendly against Canada. However, Steven Beitashour, who underwent offseason surgery for a sports hernia, will be returning to the Quakes from national team camp after experiencing soreness, Yallop said. The club offered no timeline for his return.
"He didn't re-aggravate it, but it's just a little sore so they decided to send him back," Yallop said of Beitashour.
Hernandez and midfielder Sam Cronin signed new deals in November, leaving only the return of English striker Simon Dawkins in question. Dawkins blossomed last season on loan from the Tottenham Hotspur, but his return hinges on how much the English club demands for his selling rights.
The pieces all fit together last season, when the Quakes (19-6-9) had a smashing goal differential of 29, tops in MLS by 11. The Quakes scored 30 percent of their goals in the final 15 minutes of games.
"We haven't been at the top of the table in a couple of years, so that was a great accomplishment, but at the same time a lot of us understand that we came up short," Hernandez said. "We have a lot of unfinished business, and we're definitely looking forward to the challenge. We definitely have the guys and the character to go in and face a challenge like that."
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