Two months after being traded to San Jose from Toronto, second-year midfielder Sam Cronin has settled into his new home – both off the pitch and on it.
When rookie center back Ike Opara broke his foot against Seattle on July 31, requiring surgery that’s expected to sideline him for another few weeks, it didn’t seem as though anything good would come of the situation.
But when Brandon McDonald moved to fill Opara’s spot on the back line – and Khari Stephenson, a natural attacking midfielder, was signed – it opened up the holding midfielder role for Cronin, who has taken to it immediately.
In three matches with Cronin as a holding center midfielder, the Quakes have allowed just one goal and posted a pair of wins, including one last week over league-leading Los Angeles. More importantly, the No. 2 pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft seems to have finally found his comfort zone, positionally speaking.
“That’s the idea that we have with Khari and I in there – me holding more, giving Khari more freedom to go forward and do what he does well,” Cronin told MLSsoccer.com.
“The last two performances for the team have been much sharper. I think the mentality going into the game has been sharp, and everyone’s been positive from the first whistle. If we do that, I think we have enough good players to get results in this league.”
Despite his pedigree in the middle of the pitch as an All-American at Wake Forest, Cronin was asked to play wide as a rookie last season with Toronto FC. This season, he was shuffled around, then asked to play bench ballast by new coach Preki, which afforded the Quakes an opportunity to scoop him up in exchange for allocation money after Andre Luiz went down with a season-ending knee injury.
“That’s his natural position,” Quakes coach Frank Yallop told MLSsoccer.com. “Eventually, you find a spot. He’s clean on the ball, and in that position, you’ve got to be clean.”
In Stephenson and Cronin, the team may have found their best tandem since André Luiz’s departure.
“I’d say my natural position might be holding mid just a tad bit more,” Cronin said. “But I’d like to think I’m – and take pride in being – a good box-to-box midfielder, somebody who can defend but also connect to the attack and create some more opportunities.”
The downside to all this, of course, is that it means less visibility and recognition for his work. Cronin’s efforts might be just as critical to the Quakes’ success as, say, Stephenson’s. But when Stephenson delivers a 25-yard pass to the foot of Chris Wondolowski for a game-winning goal, guess who gets the headlines.
“The average fan might not notice all the work that gets done," Cronin said, "but I think it’s a very, very important position on a team – to have that holding guy that can win balls but also be positive with his play, not put the back four in bad spots.
“I can always connect going forward, and we have some positive offensive players. So if I can get the ball to their feet in good spots, then that’s my job.”
The looming question: How long will it remain his job? Jason Hernandez, who returns next week from a two-game suspension, is more comfortable at center back and would undoubtedly like to be reunited with Bobby Burling, who’s having a solid season there. Doing that, however, would require a move by McDonald – whose strength Yallop appreciates – or Cronin.
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @sjquakes