SAN JOSE -- It didn't seem like a big move when the Earthquakes traded a second-round draft pick for journeyman forward Mike Fucito in January.
But the trade has taken on greater significance as San Jose begins the Major League Soccer season Sunday at Buck Shaw Stadium with most of its offensive firepower on the injury list. The team with a league-best 72 goals last year will limp into the opener against Real Salt Lake with five regulars sidelined.
"We're going to really rely on each other and hope for the best," said Chris Wondolowski, the league's reigning MVP. "It's going to be a work in progress."
For the time being Fucito, 26, will start alongside Wondolowski while target forwards Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart recover from offseason surgeries.
Gordon, who scored a career-best 13 goals in 2012, had a nerve removed from his foot Jan. 20. He said he expects to begin practicing by the third week of the season. Lenhart (right knee) expects to be ready about the same time.
San Jose's injury list resembles a hospital ward with midfielders Mehdi Ballouchy (ACL) and Marvin Chavez (MCL) and fullback Steven Beitashour (sports hernia) expected to miss the first month if not more. Forward Marcus Tracy, who came to San Jose in September but has yet to play, is out with an ankle bone spur.
The Earthquakes also lost dangerous midfielder Simon Dawkins, who plays for English side Aston Villa after being loaned by Tottenham this season.
It means San Jose will start 2013 similar to the way it ended '12, when it had too many broken pieces to advance to the Western Conference final.
Coach Frank Yallop said the team is considering adding a veteran but that it won't be a big-money signing. Management will patiently wait for the healthy return of its proven talent.
It's a path the two-time reigning champion L.A. Galaxy took last year. The Galaxy suffered a huge blow in the preseason when MLS defender of the year Omar Gonzalez tore his ACL in January. Los Angeles won only three of its first 13 league games and fell to last place.
Then the Galaxy recovered after Gonzalez rejoined the team at the end of July. Los Angeles finished fourth in the Western Conference and roared through the playoffs, including an impressive victory over the Quakes in the semifinals.
It dominated in the finale against Houston, which reached the championship after finishing fifth in the Eastern Conference.
"You can't peak too soon," Gordon said. "Look at the Galaxy. We met them when they were at their strongest."
Yallop's main goal is making the playoffs, which won't be easy with the eight other divisional clubs potentially improved from last season. The top five teams from each conference qualify.
Adding to the difficulties is San Jose's demanding schedule this year. The Earthquakes have qualified for the U.S. Open Cup and the CONCACAF Champions League tournaments. Yallop will call upon his reserves to play key roles in some of the games even after his main players return.
That was the idea in signing the 5-foot-9 Fucito, a former Harvard star who played in Portland last year. But the team also knew the striker might be needed to start the season because of all the injuries.
"I'm not the biggest guy, but hopefully my speed can help stretch the defense and create more space for Wondo in a little bit different way than a big target guy," Fucito said.
Fucito has been one of the impressive players throughout the preseason with a lunch-pail mentality that Yallop loves. The newcomer said it will take time to connect with Wondolowski, who has led MLS in scoring the past three seasons, but Fucito is encouraged by how quickly they have developed chemistry.
"Question marks from forwards have been there, but we answered that," Wondolowski said.
But the team looked vulnerable in the midfield during preseason games except for the stellar play of Shea Salinas, who in his sixth year might become a marquee player.
"I have a ton of confidence in this team," said Lenhart, who had a career-high 10 goals last year. "It's not like the Alan Show or the Me Show. Everyone else is just as good at playing their roles."
But without Lenhart and Gordon, the team's style must change. The Quakes can't expect to kick balls into the penalty area where the powerful target men act like point guards in distributing the ball.
They need better ball movement, especially now that the team is taken seriously around the league.
"We're not the surprise package anymore," Yallop said.
But with guys such as Fucito in the lineup, perhaps San Jose has a few tricks left.
Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/elliottalmond.
Real Salt Lake at Earthquakes, 7 p.m. CSNCA