When the San Jose Earthquakes take the field Saturday evening against the New York Red Bulls, much of the attention paid by onlookers will justifiably be focused on the duel between strikers Chris Wondolowski and Thierry Henry. However, while MLS Golden Boot chasing exploits make for good headlines, solid defensive efforts often carry the day in the end. When scanning the landscape for signs to the Earthquakes’ early-season success, one of the chief reasons defensively is none other than team captain Ramiro Corrales.
The just turned 35 year old is still making heads turn with his balance of defensive reliability and offensive creativity — qualities that can be traced back to his rookie campaign during the inaugural 1996 MLS season. Perhaps remarkably but not entirely unbelievably, Corrales is, if you excuse the three years he spent plying his trade in Europe, the last MLS Original still active in the league. And while Captain Corrales has had his achievements go largely unnoticed by all but the most ardent of MLS supporters, he is greatly respected and appreciated by the people that matter most — his teammates.
“He’s been playing well all year,” said Earthquakes headline maker Chris Wondolowski, the man that shares the locker next to Corrales. “He’s one of those unsung heroes that hasn’t received the praise he deserves. He has put in some stellar performances both defensively and offensively this year. He keeps the ball for us and acts as a catalyst in that way.”
In the team’s most recent game, Corrales provided the assists on both Wondolowski’s equalizer and Alan Gordon’s match winner as the Earthquakes battled back to overcome Vancouver Whitecaps FC, 3-1, at Buck Shaw Stadium. His game-winning assist, earned on a searching cross toward the near post that was headed home by Gordon, showed the vision the veteran brings to the team, but it was his first assist of the evening that provided all the evidence needed to realize his true worth. Coming via a long throw-in that caught the ‘Caps defense unprepared and off guard, the assist on Wondolowski’s goal was made possible by a play that Corrales only recently has again been able to execute.
The 17-year professional struggled for a lengthy period of time prior to 2011 with a troublesome back condition that limited the mobility necessary to mechanically achieve the long throw. Now back to full health, Corrales is making contributions to the team that must have seemed improbable not too long ago. And as the benefactor against Vancouver of what he called “such a dangerous weapon,” Wondolowski was quick to praise the contributions of the veteran.
“Ramiro does such a good job of reading the game that I know I can focus on getting open and he will find me. Once I saw him pick up the ball, I knew he could use that long throw, so I made a quick move to get behind the defense. We are definitely trying to take advantage of it.”
Once a dynamic 18-year-old youth star from just down Highway 101 in Salinas, Corrales made the jump to professional soccer with his selection by the Columbus Crew in the inaugural MLS draft class of 1996. Before even touching a ball as a member of the Crew, Corrales was traded to the San Jose Clash, where he made 11 appearances and throughout MLS was the youngest player to take the field that season. Selected by the Miami Fusion in the 1998 Expansion Draft, and soon after shipped to the New York MetroStars, Corrales spent three seasons in the Big Apple before returning to San Jose in early 2001. A three-year adventure in Norwegian soccer interrupted his time in Earthquakes blue, but he found his way back to San Jose in time to help rechristen the franchise prior to the 2008 season.
Now, at a healthy 35 years of age, Corrales still appears to have plenty left in the tank to keep his MLS career going strong. In fact, last season the veteran enjoyed his best year yet in a San Jose uniform in terms of minutes played — surpassed only by the career-high 2659 minutes he posted for the MetroStars in 1999 — and continued to defy detractors that claim he should have long since retired. In the early going of the 2012 season, Corrales passed the significant milestone of starting over 200 career games for the Earthquakes.
With every game that he steps on the field, Corrales extends his franchise records for appearances and minutes played, and looks no nearer to closing the book on those achievements. One player that knows a thing or two about sticking it out and seemingly getting better with age is teammate and goalkeeper Jon Busch, who wondered just what the secret was for the longevity of the last of the MLS Originals.
“He must have found the Fountain of Youth down in Salinas,” quipped the consistently quotable Quakes ‘keeper. “He’s a tremendous captain for this team, and he leads by example. You know, he is old — and I keep telling him that — but he’s been fantastic overall since I’ve been here. He’s been tremendous and looks awesome this season.”
While the unsung defensive hero and quiet on-field leader might not always make the stats sheet, Captain Corrales scores where it matters most in the admiration and respect he has earned from the players he leads on the pitch every weekend for the San Jose Earthquakes.