During the 2010 MLS season, the San Jose Earthquakes spun through center-back combinations like a slot machine on autoplay. Injuries along the back line forced head coach Frank Yallop to sift through Bobby Burling, Jason Hernandez, Brandon McDonald and Ike Opara almost on a weekly basis in search of the right pairing.
As the 2011 MLS season approaches, Yallop faces the opposite situation: an overabundance of quality defenders.
“I think any team would love to have this problem,” McDonald said. “Anybody can step in and do the part that we need.”
The question is, which two anybodies are the right two to use?
Hernandez and McDonald finished out 2009 for the Quakes in impressive fashion, and figured they would do the same in 2010. But Yallop moved McDonald to holding midfielder and the pair didn’t play together regularly until the final third of the season.
Now, after forming the backbone of a defense that helped take the Quakes to the Eastern Conference Championship, Hernandez and McDonald are once again hoping to open the season as the starting pair.
[inline_node:325288]“Frank has the master plan, and whatever he feels is the best for us to win, that’s what we’re going to do,” Hernandez said. “Every week, Frank has to make a decision as to what’s our best way to get a result.
“However, I can say that more times than not, with Brandon back there, we’ve solidified a good partnership and a good chemistry. The results speak for themselves. It was definitely great playing with him back there, and hopefully with some of the same faces we can keep doing the same thing.”
The Quakes are long on well-known faces around camp, especially in the back. Captain Ramiro Corrales, right back Chris Leitch, versatile Tim Ward and youngsters Steve Beitashour and Justin Morrow all returned.
San Jose set a franchise record for shutouts last season, and if they are to go farther this year, it’s obvious that the team is counting on their defenders to lead them there.
“When we go into the offseason and not a lot of personnel has changed,” Hernandez said, "I think that’s a good sign from the coaching staff and the front office that we’re a group of guys they believe in, that they have confidence in [and believe] can get us to championship."
With Opara and Burling, Yallop has two taller players who can both become dangerous targets on set pieces. Hernandez brings his speed and McDonald his strength, but neither can match Opara and Burling in terms of height.
Hernandez doesn’t feel that’s enough reason to break up a winning tandem.
“I can’t recall a ball where someone was jumped over and a header was snapped in the goal, or us playing against a pair of guys, battling and losing head ball after head ball,” Hernandez said. “If it was a disadvantage or a problem, I don’t think we would have got as far as we did last year.”
Yallop historically has been apt to go with whatever player is performing best in practice, but also rewards winning sides by allowing them to play the following game with a minimum of changes. Assuming the Quakes aren’t riddled with injuries in the manner of 2010, it remains to be seen if the San Jose coach will mix and match according to the front line of opposing teams.
“I think if two guys, whoever it may be, do equally well in practice, it may just come down to a matchup problem with a team – if they play direct or have quick forwards,” Opara said. “It all depends on what Frank’s thinking at that time.”
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @sjquakes