Brandon McDonald still holds the dream of every soccer player—the thought of running through a thicket of defenders, leaving opponents hopelessly twisted in your wake and bending a 25-yard rocket past a goalkeeper with no recourse to stop the shot.
“Of course,” McDonald says with a grin at the thought. “Everybody likes the glamour part of things.”
Not everybody can be Lionel Messi, however.
But though McDonald might not have the highlight-reel goals of Barcelona’s all-world star, he is having a major impact on the Earthquakes in his own way.
After coming on at halftime of the Earthquakes’ season opener, McDonald hasn’t relinquished his spot in the San Jose lineup—even though the position he’s playing, as a holding central midfielder, is one coach Frank Yallop would frankly rather do without.
“If we can have two two-way midfielders playing, I’d rather have that,” Yallop said.
Yet McDonald remains in the Earthquakes’ starting lineup. In fact, his spot is so certain that even if rookie center back Ike Opara, who is scheduled to fly Friday night and join the team in Los Angeles to face Chivas USA on Saturday, is deemed too fatigued to play, Yallop said he won’t slide McDonald to the back row—even though that’s where McDonald worked out for the U.S. national team this winter.
“We’ve asked Brandon to do a job in there and he’s excelling at it,” Yallop said. “I think he’s enjoying it, and him coming into the team has helped us, also.”
The Quakes were hoping to have an all-South American center mid partnership of André Luiz and Javier Robles, which each of them providing help as needed in all facets of the game. Rather than live with Robles’ struggles, however, Yallop has proven flexible enough to put McDonald on the pitch—and use him in a position that plays to his strengths: breaking up attacks and providing a physical presence as a gatekeeper barring entry to the Quakes’ defensive third.
“You have a vision of exactly how you want to play, but I think what you’ve got to do is really get the best out of the players you have,” Yallop said.
To San Jose general manager John Doyle, pairing up McDonald with the more offensive-minded André Luiz harkens back to the salad days of the Earthquakes’ first incarnation, when San Jose owned the midfield.
“I think probably the best team that was here when they were winning championships had Richard Mulrooney and Ronnie Ekelund,” Doyle said, referring to the duo who roamed Spartan Stadium from 2001 to 2004. “Well, Richard Mulrooney did all the dog dirty work. Ronnie Ekelund was a phenomenal soccer player and did some defensive work, but the majority of the defensive work was done by Richard, and the majority of the offensive flair and creativity for those first couple years was Ronnie.
“I think you always want a center midfielder to have those tendencies, to be able to do both, and Brandon McDonald is a younger player, a good player. I think he’s done a nice job in there, doing that [holding] role. But I think he can do more.”
For right now, it’s enough that McDonald has helped solidify San Jose’s defense. Of the four goals given up by the Quakes this season, two of them came in the half before the 24-year-old’s arrival on the pitch. If holding midfielders were assigned a goals-against-average, his would be just 0.8.
Part of the success, in McDonald’s estimation, stems from his healthy level of communication with center back Jason Hernandez. (Some people might look at the gesturing between the two and term it “yelling.”)
“We like to communicate with each other,” McDonald said. “We have a chemistry there. I feel like we can talk to each other about things—we can have a go at each other, in a way, but we know what we’re talking about. We’re just trying to better the team.”
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @sjquakes.