Quakes backs in the forefront vs. RSL
SAN JOSE, Calif. - Once again, the San Jose Earthquakes find themselves welcoming a new player onto the team as newly acquired local product Kelly Gray is expected to make his first start this Saturday night when the Earthquakes take on Real Salt Lake at Spartan Stadium. Gray, a four-year MLS veteran, was acquired from Chicago on Tuesday in exchange for a 2006 MLS SuperDraft second-round pick.
"I kind of hoped this day would come back when I got drafted," said Gray. "It's a dream come true for me, it's just incredible. I'm just so excited - I can't wait."
Gray worked out with the first team on Friday and is expected to solidify the right back position, which has been in a state of flux since the season-ending knee injury sustained by original starter Craig Waibel on May 10. After Ricardo Clark started there May 14 in a 0-0 tie against FC Dallas and a 2-1 loss to Los Angeles on May 21, Chris Aloisi has earned the last four starts.
For Gray, who starred at Leigh High School in San Jose, the trade to the Earthquakes comes at a very good time in his career. Having already been established as a solid MLS player during his first three seasons with the Fire, Gray found himself on the bench in 2005.
"I wasn't playing in Chicago, so I wasn't happy with the soccer there," said Gray. "But it ended up working out for both sides."
San Jose is hoping that Gray will be able to utilize his attacking skills to get forward along the right touchline. With attack-minded right midfielder Brian Mullan still out with a left ankle fracture, the Earthquakes are expecting Gray to work with right midfielder Mark Chung, a left-footed player, to get crosses in from the right side.
"I need to get a little better on the defensive end of things," said Gray, "but I feel like I'm decent going forward - I've always been an attacking player."
During his tenure in Chicago, Gray played several positions including fullback, outside midfield and central midfield. His versatility is attractive to San Jose, but for now he will be called upon to man the right back spot.
"He's a good passer of the ball, he's a good defender, he's got pretty good pace," said San Jose head coach Dominic Kinnear. "He brings a lot of options to the team."
In recent weeks, San Jose has gotten increasingly productive play along the left side, as left back Wade Barrett has formed an excellent understanding with midfielder Brad Davis. Barrett and Davis were instrumental in several combinations along the left side in last Saturday's 1-1 draw against Chivas USA, including one that would have led to a game-winning goal in second-half stoppage time were it not for a poor offside call against Dwayne De Rosario.
"We always try to work on that - some games it's worked better than others," said Barrett. "If Kelly has the opportunity to get forward then I sit back and if I have the chance, then he sits back."
In Real Salt Lake, the Earthquakes take on a team that has yet to establish an identity in its first season in the league. Despite the presence of two of the best attacking players in MLS history in Jason Kreis and Clint Mathis, Real Salt Lake has scored just eight goals in 12 games, the worst strike rate in the league. Kreis and Mathis have recently switched positions - with Kreis dropping back to the midfield - in an attempt to spark the dormant offense.
"They've got some good attacking players. Clint Mathis is a very good, technical player who can change the game, Jason Kreis is good around the box," said Kinnear, "but I tell our guys to concentrate on our game and then if they're causing problems then we have to adjust."
Center back Eddie Robinson, who is listed as doubtful on the injury report with a groin strain, has also been working out with the first team and is expected to start on Saturday. Robinson has been playing especially well since veteran center back Danny Califf joined the lineup on May 25.
"He's had a great stretch of five or six games," said Kinnear. "He and Danny have formed a real good partnership in there - you kind of want to keep a guy who's confident in his ability and playing well in the team."
U.S. national team forward Brian Ching, who has missed the past five matches with a right hamstring strain, has trained with the team since Tuesday and should be available in a reserve role on Saturday.
With FC Dallas (24 points) and Los Angeles (23) establishing themselves as the early-season teams to beat in the Western Conference, the match takes on added significance for both teams. San Jose (15) is attempting to pull away from Real Salt Lake (11) and Colorado (11) in order to take a firm grip on one of the four conference playoff spots. But the team is looking beyond just staying atop the four-team heap in the race for third.
"We want to start focusing on making sure we're gaining points on the teams in front of us and not just not conceding points to the teams below us," said Barrett. "We really have our sights set on closing the gap on the teams at the top."
Danny Kadah is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.