Quakes' Caribbean connection helps connect dots early in season

Cato, Francis, Harris prove valuable piece to Quakes early on

The Earthquakes’ Caribbean Connection has helped Coach Mark Watson connect the dots early in the season.

Jamaican Shaun Francis, Trinidadian Cordell Cato and Saint Kitts and Nevis native Atiba Harris have brought positive attitudes and played significant minutes. They’ve helped the Quakes display the kind of depth that could pay off over the long, hot summer. Additionally, versatile Jamaican midfielder Khari Stephenson, 33, in his return to the club, has quickly made his presence felt.

Francis, 27, and Cato, 21, have been vital components, and good soldiers, on an injury-plagued back line. The Quakes scooped up Francis in the MLS Re-Entry Draft Stage 2 in December 2013, along with Brandon Barklage, and the move to shore up the defense has quickly paid dividends.

Moreover, Francis is enjoying life on his new club.

“It’s been a really, really good transition for me,” Francis said. “All the players have welcomed me.”

Francis downplayed the fact that the Quakes’ back line was basically thrown together before what proved to be an epic 1-1 draw with Toluca FC on March 19, in the second leg of the CCL quarterfinals.

“Each player could be a starting player,” he said. “For these players to come in, I don’t think they looked at it like it was something that is new to them. We wanted to prove to the coaches that we deserved to play. We’re just going to battle. No matter what it takes, we have to fight for each other.”

Stephenson, a savvy veteran who helped the Quakes to the Supporters’ Shield in 2012, brought back fond memories of his old days with the club when he replaced the injured Jason Hernandez in the 67th minute of a 3-3 draw against Real Salt Lake on March 15, the Quakes’ MLS season-opener.

Stephenson also played 102 minutes at 8,700-feet elevation against Toluca. Cato and Francis went the distance in the marathon match, and Harris played 67 minutes in the midfield.

“Everyone did really well,” Watson said after the Toluca game. “Khari is someone we know well. He’s been here in the past, and he’s got a lot of experience. He’s a great guy to have around. I thought he did really well...did a lot of work.”

Cato’s attacking flare and determination were readily apparent in the draw against Real Salt Lake. He nearly scored in the late push as the team rallied from a 3-1 deficit in classic Goonies’ style.

“We kept pushing,” Cato said. “That’s what we do. We never give up.”

Cato, who made 20 appearances last season, including 10 starts, also thrived in space in a 1-1 draw with Toluca in the first leg of the CCL quarterfinals on March 11. Cato made a beautiful long cross to Chris Wondolowski in the 55th minute, but the Mexican keeper made a brilliant save.

Cato has taken things in stride in his position switch to defender to begin the season.

“It’s new, but you’ve got to be prepared to play anywhere,” he said. “When things weren’t going as well as planned, the coach asked me to play a new position, and I said, ‘Yes.’”

Would he play center back if called upon?

“That’s different,” Cato said with a laugh. “I’d have to go for too many headers.”

Francis, 27, is a four-year MLS veteran with experience on the Jamaican national team, like Stephenson. He was taken by the Columbus Crew in the fourth round of the 2010 MLS SuperDraft. He played last season with the Charlotte Eagles in USL-Pro before signing with the Chicago Fire in July.

Francis’ smile has proved infectious through all the hard work in preseason camp.

“He’s been great,” Watson said. “He’s a great guy to have around. He’s always got a smile on his face and comes to work every day. He’s been excellent for us.”

The athletic Harris came to the Quakes in a trade that sent wing Marvin Chavez to the Colorado Rapids on Jan. 7. Harris holds the distinction of becoming the first player from his country to sign with MLS, in 2006 with Real Salt Lake. In 2010, he played a key role in FC Dallas’ run to the MLS Cup final, starting in all but one of 29 regular-season appearances.

A knee injury limited his playing time with Vancouver in 2011, but Harris still scored twice in a match and had a goal and two assists in that club’s inaugural game. He also had five goals and an assist for Colorado in 2013.

Stephenson, who played for Real Salt Lake last season, is in his seventh MLS season and his fourth with San Jose. The graduate of Williams College began his MLS career with the Kansas City Wizards in 2004-05 before playing five years in Scandinavia. He has also made 26 appearances with the Jamaican national team.

Stephenson gives the Quakes' very athletic Caribbean contingent high marks.

"I think all of those guys are very good with the ball and good running at players and getting out of tight situations," he said. "In a team like this where we play wide a lot, that's definitely a good asset to have."

How happy is Stephenson to be back with the Quakes?

"Very happy," he said. "Very happy to be back with the guys and doing what I did when was here before. It's definitely a great atmosphere to be in. Great locker room. Great coaches. Great front office. Great organization."

As the long MLS season unfolds, expect to see more good things from the Quakes' Caribbean Connection.

- Richter Media