SANTA CLARA -- With some new European flavor and the same old fighting spirit, the Earthquakes will kick off the Major League Soccer season Saturday against Real Salt Lake.
Goalkeeper Jon Busch already has his customary shiner. The enigmatic Bash Brothers Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart, along with Busch and former MVP Chris Wondolowski are looking to recapture the form of 2012, when the Quakes scored a franchise-record 72 goals.
"There's a lot of optimism," said Busch, who got his black eye diving into a goal post this preseason. "We know that the first step is getting into the playoffs. That's a must for us this year, but we have bigger plans than that."
Coach Mark Watson, who took over from Frank Yallop at midseason and guided the team to within a game of the playoffs, said: "We had a great group ending the season. We kept most of the team, and the changes have made us better."
Quakes general manager John Doyle has been busy since the offseason rebuilding around the team's core. That includes European imports -- midfielder Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi, a Corsican from AC Ajaccio in France; Andreas Gorlitz, a German right back; and speedy 140-pound winger Yannick Djalo, on loan from Benfica-Portugal.
In a demanding opening stretch, the Quakes are playing four games over 12 days. After hosting Real Salt Lake, the 2013 MLS Cup runner-up, they'll travel to Toluca, Mexico, (elevation 8,700 feet) on Wednesday to complete the CONCACAF home-and-home quarterfinals that began Tuesday. Then they play at MLS Cup champion Sporting Kansas City on March 22.
A former Quakes assistant, Watson guided San Jose to an 11-5-3 record last season. The Quakes missed the playoffs in a tiebreaker.
San Jose's never-say-die "Goonies" persona, drawn from the 1980s kids movie "The Goonies," lives on.
In a dramatic 1-1 draw against Toluca, Gordon scored in the 95th minute off a Shea Salinas free kick.
"It's the same old Quakes. We battle to the end," Busch said.
Quakes fans know better than to leave early. Tuesday's draw showed the team's newcomers what to expect.
"It was awesome," said right back Brandon Barklage, who started for the New York Red Bulls in 2013. "The blood was boiling the entire game, and Gordo stepped up at the right time. That's what those three 'Goonies' do up top. They step up at the right times."
"I'd seen that 'Goonie magic' before," said rookie JJ Koval, a first-round draft pick from Stanford, "but it was cool to be on the field and be a part of it."
Koval is surrounded by veteran midfielders Sam Cronin and Pierazzi.
The back four, the fulcrum of the team in 2013, again boasts U.S. national team mainstay Clarence Goodson and Honduran Victor Bernardez in the center, with support from veteran Jason Hernandez.
Englishman Jordan Stewart returns as an attack-minded left back, like predecessor Justin Morrow, who was traded to Toronto FC for allocation money. Barklage and Gorlitz are vying for the spot vacated by Steven Beitashour, traded to Vancouver for allocation money.
The midfield got a bit of a shake-up as speedy Marvin Chavez was dealt to Colorado for Atiba Harris, and Rafael Baca signed with Mexico's Cruz Azul. The relentless Salinas, with his deft free kicks, and Cordell Cato had strong season debuts against Toluca out wide.
Last year's scoring dropped off to 35 goals in MLS, but the Quakes lived by their defense and gumption. Gordon said they've been working on adding versatility to the attack.
Barklage described his role as pretty similar to that of Beitashour's.
"I like to get up and down the flank," he said. "My No. 1 priority is to do things on the defensive side of the ball, and do what I can going forward and supplying the service that Wondo and Lenny and Gordo like to have. They're starving for service, and that's something that I'm looking forward to doing this year."
The Quakes compete in the top-heavy Western Conference, with five playoff spots available among nine teams. Busch said it's exciting having a "dogfight" in every game as conference opponents keep adding quality players.
He doesn't seem concerned about other teams spending more money.
"Just because you have deeper pockets doesn't mean it always works out," Busch said. "It's a fine balance you have to have in that locker room. Sometimes, if you spend more money, things don't stay even-keel in that locker room, so there's no single formula that's right in this league."
Cronin, voted team MVP last season for his role as the connecting link from the defense to the attack, thinks improved depth will be a plus.
"It's good that we have healthy numbers in there," he said. "We have good competition. It's important to have competition at every spot. We didn't necessarily have that at every position on the field last year. We do this year."