SAN JOSE, Calif. – With 28 matches still remaining, the San Jose Earthquakes are already down to just three iron men who’ve played all 540 regulation minutes this season.
Two of the names should come as no surprise to Quakes fans: goalkeeper Jon Busch and forward Chris Wondolowski.
The trio’s third member is someone whose absence of flash should not be mistaken for a lack of importance. Sam Cronin is at the center of the pitch for San Jose, a tireless worker who covers – and re-covers – practically every inch of space between Busch and Wondolowski at opposite ends of the Quakes’ formation.
San Jose have played 93 regular-season MLS matches since acquiring Cronin in June 2010. He has started 74 of those games, and the Quakes have gone 32-23-19 for an average of 1.55 points per contest. In the other 19 games, that number drops to 1.37. Over the course of a 34-match season, that’s a variance of 6.3 points in the standings – potentially the difference between making the playoffs or going home in October.
That’s why it was so disconcerting for the Quakes to see Cronin go head over heels in the 88th minute of San Jose’s 1-1 tie against Vancouver on Saturday. Cronin and Whitecaps midfielder Nigel Reo-Coker both went in at full speed for a loose ball in the Vancouver end.
Reo-Coker got to the ball first by a fraction of a second, but his follow-through took the studs of his right boot into the right ankle of Cronin. That sent the Quakes’ 26-year-old – listed at 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds – pinwheeling through the air before crashing to earth on his right shoulder.
“I thought it was terrible,” said Quakes center back Jason Hernandez, who was watching the game due to injury. “Any time you have two teams that are fighting for a result, there’s going to be hard tackles. There’s going to be plays that either side might not look well upon, but that one in particular stood out in my mind as a really reckless challenge. I don’t know what else to say about it.”
At the time, Cronin quickly sprang back up and seemed to have some choice words for referee Fotis Bazakos. But Tuesday, Cronin absolved Reo-Coker of blame.
Highlights: San Jose 1, Vancouver 1
“Me flying in the air you don’t see often, but ... nine times out of 10, that doesn’t happen,” Cronin said. “[Typically,] we both just go in, the ball goes elsewhere and we just bump into each other a little bit. His intent wasn’t to clean me out or anything. He was going for the ball. I was going for the ball. He came through me a little bit extra, but it’s fine by me.”
What wasn’t fine by Cronin was the Quakes performance two weeks ago, a 2-0 loss to Houston in which San Jose never felt like they were in the match. The tie against Vancouver kept intact the Quakes’ streak of bouncing back from losses.
San Jose are now 5-0-5 after their last 10 regular-season defeats and haven’t lost consecutive regular-season matches since August 2011. That run dates back almost precisely to the installation of Rafael Baca alongside Cronin in the center of San Jose’s midfield.
“I don’t know if that’s the reason [for not suffering consecutive losses],” Cronin said of the pairing. “I think it’s just the character we have on the team. The players, we took ownership to having a good week of training. I think a loss sometimes can refocus you. A loss, we never want it, but it allows us to refocus, and as long as you learn lessons from it, it’s not the worst thing.”
Geoff Lepper covers the San Jose Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com