Payne: Starting at the back

I had thought about leading off my first Earthquakes notebook with comments on goalkeeper Pat Onstad, until I learned he has been enlisted by the club to write a weekly Tuesday column. This week's effort by this week's Major Soccer League player of the week was fun and informative. One thing the Vancouver, B.C. native didn't tell us was that he loves ice hockey and is an ardent Canucks fan. Lookout, Pat, you're in Sharks country.

On second thought, make that Quakes country. The Q's are San Jose's only two-time national champion.

The Quakes are fortunate to have landed the Canadian national team goalkeeper. He was lured to San Jose prior to last season from the A-League's Rochester Rhinos by then Quakes coach and former Canadian national team defender Frank Yallop, now his country's national team coach. He had more than 40 shutouts during his three-plus seasons in Rochester, including a league-record 16 in 1998. The following year, he had clean sheets against the Chicago Fire and Colorado Rapids en route to directing the Rhinos to the U.S. Open Cup title.

I can't wait for Onstad to tell us whom he's going to play for when the Quakes entertain Yallop and the Canadian national team in a June 5 exhibition at Spartan Stadium. My guess? He'll spend a half in goal for both teams.

Onstad was stellar Saturday against the visiting Chicago Fire, tipping three Ante Razov shots over the bar and redirecting a Damani Ralph blast wide of the right post. The 36-year-old 'keeper is showing the quickness and instincts of soon-to-be 40-year-old Barry Bonds.

WELCOMING WES: Born in nearby Hollister and raised in Colorado, newcomer Wes Hart showed a lot of heart during his MLS debut for the Quakes against Chicago. Onstad credited the defender with helping preserve the shutout with a late-game header clearance from the goal area.

Starting at right back for Craig Waibel, who was serving a one-game suspension, Hart performed well enough to warrant consideration as a starter over Waibel on Saturday at New England. Hart and Waibel, interestingly, were teammates at the University of Washington.

Hart, acquired from the Rapids in February for a conditional pick in the 2005 MLS SuperDraft, said he is happy with his new club.

"My family is in Colorado and I just bought a house there, but I'm still really excited to be here,'' Hart said. "After four years with the Rapids, I was ready for a change. I wasn't really looking forward to this season, but that all changed after the trade.

"It's great to have a fresh start with a good team.''

Hart, a first-round draft pick (seventh overall) by the Rapids in 2000, is still adjusting to defending, something Quakes coach Dominic Kinnear experienced when he moved from the midfield to the back line late in his MLS playing career with the now defunct Tampa Bay Mutiny. Tim Hankinson not only moved Hart to defense as the coach at Colorado, he did the same with Kinnear while coaching Tampa Bay.

"I was drafted as a forward," noted a grinning Hart, a frontrunner in college during his first two seasons at Wisconsin and final two years at Washington. "I was a forward my first year with the Rapids, played in the midfield my second and third seasons and was moved to right back last year.

"I had good games and bad games, but thought I improved as the season went on."

Hart felt he had his "good and not-so-good" moments against Chicago.

"I thought I had an average performance," he said. "This team has a lot of good players in the back, which makes it fun. There's a lot of depth here, and that's good."

Hart, who started 60 games for the Rapids the last two seasons, struggled with injuries his initial two years with the club, missing the first 22 games in 2000 with tendonitis in his right knee, and sitting out the same number of games in 2001 after suffering a torn Achilles tendon.

Hart had to do something right last year against San Jose for the Rapids, who went 2-1-1 against the MLS champions while being outscored 5-3.

"It was funny, because we played well against the Earthquakes in San Jose and they played well against us in Denver," said Hart, looking back on 2-0 and 2-1 Colorado wins at Spartan Stadium, a 2-1 Quakes win and a 0-0 tie at Invesco Field. "It seemed like Spence (John Spencer) and (Mark) Chung always played well against San Jose.

"The games are always very competitive between the teams. It's going to feel a little strange playing against the Rapids (the first of four meetings is April 24 at Colorado)."

Hart is single, but not for long. He said he's "close" to marrying sweetheart Jamie Martini.

Meanwhile, he's rooming with Sienna, his Rottweiler.

"Sienna really loves it here,'' said Hart.

That's a good thing, considering soccer players historically don't seem to play well when living with unhappy dogs, Rottweilers in particular.

CHASING A WINNING RECORD: The Quakes are within striking distance of having an all-time regular-season winning record in MLS for the first time since they were 10-9 with 13 games remaining in the league's inaugural season in 1996. The Quakes, who have been two games over .500 (10-8) only once in its eight-plus seasons, began this year 107-111-26, but have slipped to 107-112-27 after an 0-1-1 start. The Quakes were 66-86-8 before Yallop turned things around with a 41-25-18 record.

DID YOU KNOW?: Before beginning their 6-0-1 run against New England, the Quakes went 0-3-1 against the Revolution in 2000. The Quakes are unbeaten in their last three games at Foxboro, and are 6-4-1 overall on the road against the Revs.

Dave Payne's column will appear every other Wednesday during the 2004 season on SJEarthquakes.com.


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