Baca makes his case for starting spot in SJ midfield

San Jose midfielder Rafael Baca

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. – With six goals and two assists last season, Simon Dawkins has the MLS track record. Tressor Moreno, the former Colombian international, has the impressive résumé.

Yet with neither of those players at full match fitness, it was Rafael Baca who started the San Jose Earthquakes’ season opener as an attacking midfielder last Saturday.

And, by the looks of his performance in the Quakes’ 1-0 victory against New England, Baca isn’t planning on giving up his spot in the lineup.

“I thought he did an excellent job,” Quakes star Chris Wondolowski said of Baca to MLSsoccer.com. “He just really goes unseen. He’s kind of our engine that runs us. He has great vision. He defends. He covers so much ground and he makes those dangerous runs out of the midfield. He’s an all-around player, and someone I enjoy playing with out there.”

HIGHLIGHTS: SJ vs NE

Baca is expected to start again Saturday when San Jose host Houston at San Francisco's AT&T Park in an afternoon tilt (5 pm ET; MLS Live). Head coach Frank Yallop likes to keep a winning side intact, and Baca didn’t do anything to hurt his cause against the Revs.

It was Baca’s through ball in second-half injury time that set up Dawkins – who came on at left wing in the 64th minute – for a great look at a game-clinching goal, although the Englishman pushed it just wide.

“Every day that I come out on the field, it’s to show that I deserve a spot in the starting XI,” Baca told MLSsoccer.com. “But you’re talking about Tressor, you’re talking about Simon Dawkins, players that are really good and that I’m learning from every day in practice. I think if I start, if Simon starts or if Tressor starts, those are all good options, and that’s good to have in a team.”

While those two more senior players round into 90-minute form, Yallop is enjoying what he sees from Baca, the 22-year-old product of Loyola Marymount. Yallop even invokes diminutive Manchester United legend Paul Scholes when talking about Baca, who’s listed at 5-8 and 160 pounds by San Jose.

“His energy and his work rate, his clean play on the ball,” Yallop said of what specifics he likes in Baca’s game. “He doesn’t lose it in bad areas. He doesn’t lose it in the final third. I think he keeps it moving for us. He doesn’t stop running. Just a good player with good instincts.”

Baca, a Mexican national, feels like he’s improved upon his play from last year, when he didn’t join the team until early July after having to sort out his visa paperwork.

“I think my ball control’s better, and my moving off the ball is also better,” he said. “It’s been a really good, knowing that I can train with the team every day and have that chemistry with them. You can see it on the pitch. When we’re playing, we’re starting to understand each other. I know where the players are going to move.”

The Quakes famously signed Baca as an undrafted free agent out of LMU; the fact that he was attending school in Southern California without citizenship or a student visa scared off most clubs and turned him into what Wondolowski described as “one of those unseen gems.”

“Everyone liked him, I would think,” Yallop said. “We liked him. We played against him two years ago and he was great. But it was like, ‘OK, he’s a foreign player with visa issues to get through. Is it worth our time and efforts?’ Because we didn’t have him until what, June of last year? That’s a long time. I could have been out of a job by then. You tend to move on.”

Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at sanjosequakes@gmail.com