Shea Salinas, who will surpass 15,000 career minutes next weekend, entered Major League Soccer in 2008 upon being drafted by the Earthquakes in the second round out of Furman University. His elusiveness and pace on the wing has always been evident and even resulted in him being selected in back-to-back Expansion Drafts as teams looked for immediate boosts to their roster (2010 – PHI; 2011 – VAN).
He returned to the Quakes in 2012 and tallied seven assists en route to the club’s second-ever Supporters’ Shield that season. After establishing himself as a key member of the team despite primarily coming off the bench, Salinas found himself regularly penciled into the Starting XI in each of the next three seasons – recording 24, 30 and 29 starts from 2013-15.
In 2016, the Grapevine, Texas native was given the role of ‘super sub’ and proceeded to appear in all but one regular season game for San Jose. However, his eight starts that year were his fewest since 2010 as a member of the Union.
“Being a sub off the bench is a difficult position, but it’s one I saw a lot of positives in as well,” explained Salinas. “You always want to be a starter. You always want to be the guy that’s consistently contributing. But if you’re not able to do that, being the first one off the bench is the next best thing. I didn’t mind the position. Coming on as a sub and providing a spark is fun, especially when you’re successful at it.”
The 2017 offseason saw the addition and emergence of several players in Salinas’ winger role. Albanian International Jahmir Hyka and Dutch talisman Danny Hoesen both represented younger foreign options that could be plugged into his position. Homegrown fan favorite Tommy Thompson also took the next step in his career and was another viable option on the outside, as well as midseason Designated Player signing Vako.
“Every year I’ve been in the league, there’s been more expensive players brought in to play my position. Ever since I can remember, there’s been guys brought in to fill my role. I’ve always looked at it as a way to challenge myself, to improve. You always want competition. You want to be able to compete and get better. This year was no different. We brought in a lot of guys, a lot of great players. I’ve learned a lot from them but also got to compete against them. If you’re not willing to fight for playing time, you’re not going to be a successful player.
An in-season coaching change from Dominic Kinnear to Chris Leitch also saw an adjustment in the formation the team would trot out on game days. Instead of an ‘empty bucket’ 4-4-2, the Quakes opted for a more attack-minded 3-5-2 and Salinas was tasked with learning the role of left wing back, responsible for contributing on both ends of the field. The new formation yielded somewhat mixed results, albeit with a more exciting approach.
San Jose then switched to a more balanced 4-2-3-1, allowing extra cover on the back end while still contributing greater numbers forward on the attack. With natural left back Shaun Francis already sent to Montreal and versatile fullback Kofi Sarkodie replacing the injured Nick Lima at right back, Salinas was approached about playing left back.
“We needed someone to play left back at practice, so I slid back there and played. Apparently I did well enough that they decided to start me there that weekend. I don’t mind it. I played on the back line before with Philadelphia. I’d rather be contributing to the attack, but I’ve enjoyed the challenge of learning a new position and trying to match up with a player and battle him.”
His first task was against the rival LA Galaxy at StubHub Center, where he proceeded to play 90 minutes in a 3-0 shutout victory. Throughout the match, he displayed physicality and aggressiveness well above what his FIFA player card likely reads. With the new position came a new mentality.
“There’s definitely a different mentality playing as a defender. It’s more of a one-on-one battle. You’ve got to win it for 90 minutes. You take things a lot more personally as a defender because you don’t want to get beat. When I step onto the pitch, I look across the field and tell myself, ‘that guy’s not going to beat me. I’m going to do whatever it takes to prevent him from being successful.’ “
There has been a history of attack-minded players getting moved to full back in MLS – most prominently Sporting Kansas City’s Graham Zusi and LA’s Gyasi Zardes. Salinas is the latest to succeed in this growing trend.
“I think being versatile is key to longevity in the league. I think playing defense allows me to play longer. Ultimately I just want to be on the field and help my team win games.”