Rookie JJ Koval "a beast" filling in at right back for injury-depleted San Jose Earthquakes
SANTA CLARA, Calif. – The San Jose Earthquakes held an Iranian heritage celebration in conjunction with their match Sunday, but the Iranian-American who could have helped them the most against the Columbus Crew was nowhere to be found.
The Quakes traded Steven Beitashour – the San Jose native born to Iranian parents – to the Vancouver Whitecaps in January after failing to agree on a new contract with the 2012 All-Star. In his place, San Jose hoped to use a combination of MLS veteran Brandon Barklage, picked up in this year’s Re-Entry Draft, and newcomer Andreas Görlitz, a 32-year-old with more than a decade of pro experience in his native Germany.
So far, it has not worked quite as planned: Both Barklage and Görlitz have battled injuries thus far in 2014. Görlitz has not made an appearance while recovering from a hamstring problem, while Barklage lasted just 53 minutes Sunday before having to limp off with what coach Mark Watson termed “a dead leg-type scenario.”
Meanwhile, Beitashour has played 539 out of 540 minutes for the Whitecaps.
“We’ve had an issue at right back all year,” Watson admitted Sunday. “We thought [Barklage] would be OK, but it was pretty clear very quickly that wasn’t the case, so we had to make the switch.”
One highlight came barely more than three minutes after checking in when Koval was faced with a one-on-one situation against Columbus left back Waylon Francis, whose runs down the sideline had generated multiple dangerous chances in the first half, including an assist on Federico Higuain’s 44th-minute goal.
Koval simply stood Francis up, knocked down his attempted cross and took possession in the opposite direction, as though he’d been playing there for years. In fact, Koval has only played there a handful of times, starting with this year’s MLS scouting combine.
“My mentality from the beginning has been to work hard in training and contribute in any way possible to help the team,” Koval said. “Whether I’m playing center mid, right back or center back, I’m here to do whatever I can to help the team win.”
San Jose's first-round draft pick out of Stanford has already played each of those positions as a professional thanks to the club's Champions League series against Toluca, and each time he has proved more than capable.
“I think he’s played right back twice in his life, and it’s been both times with us, without preparation," Watson said. "It’s kind of last-minute stuff, and he’s always adapted well.”
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Koval’s success gives Watson another option, and one that might be more attractive playing behind Djalo. A powerful and rangy defensive midfielder by trade, Koval is unlikely to match the offensive potential of Barklage, Cato or Görlitz. But he can clean up more effectively when Djalo floats to the center of the pitch, something that frequently happened Sunday as the Quakes searched for first an equalizer and then a go-ahead goal in the second half against Columbus.
Earthquakes captain Chris Wondolowski said the squad would have no problem welcoming the rookie to the lineup if a spot opened up.
“He’s absolutely amazing,” Wondolowski said. “I think he’s done a fantastic job. He’s just a beast, anywhere you put him. He covers so much ground, is such a tough guy and so smart. At such a young age, he definitely has a veteran head on himself.”