When you think of the San Jose Earthquakes and a young American forward, it’s only natural to think of Cade Cowell. Cowell, 17, has turned heads ever since signing with the club as a 15-year-old ahead of the 2019 season. He has four goals and four assists this year and doesn’t seem far off from earning his first national team call up at the senior level.
However, he’s not the only youngster in the attacking-third contributing to the team this season.
Benji Kikanovic, 21, is beginning to pick up playing time and taking advantage of the opportunities. Kikanovic does not have the same sort of dizzying story that Cowell does and did not sign his first professional contract before he was old enough to drive. In fact, Kikanovic was playing at Sacramento State University just two years ago before being picked up and brought to the Quakes’ former USL Championship affiliate Reno 1868 FC for the 2020 season.
Kikanovic’s numbers in college were not necessarily eye-popping as he tallied nine goals and five assists in 34 total appearances across two seasons, although it should be said they were just his freshman and sophomore years. But what had San Jose interested was his projectability given key traits. He has a tall, athletic build, explosive speed, and an outstanding leaping ability that makes him a formidable target on set pieces. In just 336 minutes so far during his rookie season, he has already tallied two goals and an assist. He’s the second-youngest player on the Earthquakes to make an appearance this year.
He spoke to media a few days after recording an important assist in Saturday’s 4-3 comeback win over Austin FC on Sept. 18. When asked whether he or Cowell was faster, he didn’t shy away in his response.
"I'm going to go with me,” he said while laughing. “We raced. I'm not going to say who won - you can ask him – but I'm going to say I'm faster."
Kikanovic didn’t exactly have a straight line to playing time this season, especially with only one central forward in the lineup. He entered the year behind Cowell, the G.O.A.T. Chris Wondolowski, Andy Rios, and later Jeremy Ebobisse who was acquired via trade. And yet, despite the challenges on the depth chart, Kikanovic has found his way onto the pitch.
"I see a great future ahead of him,” head coach Matias Almeyda exclaimed. “He is a young player. He has great desire and gives a lot to the team. There are many qualities in him for which I choose him. We like to give the younger guys minutes in our project. There is a process ahead of them for them to develop into the players we think they can become.”
After an impressive performance vs. Austin, Kikanovic was rewarded with another start on Sept. 25 vs. LAFC and scored the game-winning goal in the third minute.
Kikanovic knows the key to his success is to do more listening than talking and to leave it all out on the pitch.
"I haven't really taken in much,” he explained. “I just show up to training every single day, put in the work, listen to the older guys trying to help me out; my movements, what to do in certain situations. And also having a coach like Matias guiding me in the right direction also helps a lot.
“For me, it's just about showing up to training and putting in the work and the results will come. If they don't come, that means you aren't working hard enough, and you've got to work harder. That's how I look at it. I try not to think about things too much, just take it day by day."
Wednesday’s match vs. Seattle, presented by Intermedia, kicks off from PayPal Park at 7:30 p.m. and will be broadcast live on NBC Sports Bay Area Plus, KNBR 1050 and 1370 KZSF.