Midfield pair Baca, Cronin unsung heroes of Quakes' run

Chris Wondolowski, Rafael Baca and Sam Cronin

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. – In the wake of a 5-0 romp against short-handed Real Salt Lake last Saturday night, San Jose Earthquakes coach Frank Yallop told the assembled media, “I hate to single people out,” before proceeding to do exactly that.

“I think [Rafael] Baca and Sam Cronin were great in the middle of our midfield,” Yallop said. “They bossed it. They made sure it was difficult to play against them, and they were clean on the ball. It was great.”

For all the contributions from the likes of Chris Wondolowski, with his league-leading 17 goals, or Víctor Bernárdez, who has been a rock along the backline, or Marvin Chávez, whose speed has reinvigorated San Jose’s attack on the flanks, perhaps no duo has made as much of a combined impact as Baca and Cronin.

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“I thought our midfield won the game for us tonight,” said Wondolowski, who did his part with his first hat trick of 2012. “I wish [Baca and Cronin] had trackers on them. If you see how much ground they cover – they’re such smart players; you think you have [an open] pass and they cut it out.

“Salt Lake is definitely a possession team, but I thought, especially in the first half, that they didn’t play as high [up the field] or as well as they would like – but I think a lot of it had to do with the pressure we put on them, and it was all from those guys.”

While the Quakes have found plenty of avenues for attack down either wing – where Beitashour, Chávez, Ramiro Corrales, Justin Morrow and Shea Salinas have all succeeded in providing dangerous service – it has been the ability of Baca and Cronin to hold the fort in the middle of the field, tirelessly tracking opposing runs, delivering crisp and perfectly timed change-of-field passes, or intercepting wayward balls, that has been the foundation for San Jose’s 12-4-4 record.

Baca chalks up the pair’s production to their ability to work hand-in-hand between either box. There is little, if any, wasted movement on their part, no Keystone Cops moments of Baca and Cronin converging in one spot while the other team slashes, ball in tow, through the Quakes’ exposed midfield.

“I think our communication is a key part in the success we’ve had,” Baca said. “When you have a player like Sam, and you communicate well with him, you understand his movements and he understands yours, I think it’s easy to play in the midfield, controlling the midfield as well.”

Every game, it seems, there’s a critical sequence that features either Baca or Cronin, or both – not necessarily in a starring role, but always with a contribution that advances the play.

For example, on San Jose’s first goal in the Quakes’ 4-3 comeback victory against LA Galaxy on June 30, Cronin initiated things by picking off a wobbly delivery from David Beckham. After a quick trio of passes through the midfield, Baca unfurled a long ball to the right wing for Chávez, who then ducked inside and cut loose from 25 yards. LA goalkeeper Josh Saunders could only parry the shot, leaving a simple rebound on the doorstep for Steven Lenhart to tap home.

Lenhart’s goal went down in the books as unassisted, but events never would have unfolded in that fashion without Baca and Cronin’s efforts.

“Rafa pulls the strings, as you can see,” San Jose goalkeeper Jon Busch said. “He’s been fantastic so far this year.”

With first place in the Supporters’ Shield race on the line last weekend, Cronin was again at the heart of the match’s biggest moment. RSL took such great exception to his 57th-minute takedown of Javier Morales – a move Cronin said after the game was not deliberate – that midfielder Kyle Beckerman retaliated with what Cronin said was a rake of the boot down his shin. The RSL captain drew a straight red card, and the Quakes, already up 1-0 through Wondolowski, fired home four more goals before the final whistle.

It was the second time Cronin this season has been in the middle of an RSL meltdown at Buck Shaw Stadium. It was Cronin who suffered a two-footed, studs-up tackle from Fabián Espíndola in the 30th minute on April 21. San Jose eventually won 3-1 against a nine-man Salt Lake squad.

Listed at a generous 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds, Cronin isn’t the prototypical midfield destroyer, but he’s taken to the role since arriving via trade from Toronto FC in June 2010.

“Sammy’s a little bulldog in the midfield,” Busch said. “You can’t count out the little guys; they’ve got a lot of bite to them. ... To me, he reminds me a lot of Logan Pause and Chris Armas, two guys I regard very highly that I played with in Chicago. Sammy fits into that mold. He breaks a lot of plays up, he gets in on tackles. He does all the dirty work that nobody else notices or wants to do.”

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