Quakes shuffle defensive pairings

Just as the San Jose Earthquakes were paying respect to their resurgent defense by honoring center backs Eddie Robinson and Danny Califf as co-players of the month for June, it's looking increasingly likely that neither will be available this weekend in Columbus.

Califf is definitely out for Saturday's match, as he will be serving a one-match suspension for being sent off with two yellow cards in last week's 2-2 tie at FC Dallas. And Robinson, who left the FC Dallas match in the 20th minute with a right hamstring strain, has yet to train this week and is considered as doubtful for the match in Columbus.

To make matters worse, second-year pro Ryan Cochrane, who replaced Robinson last Saturday, has a sprained left ankle himself and is considered as probable. San Jose is counting on Cochrane to play, however, and if Robinson is unable to go, the Santa Clara product will likely be paired with either Kelly Gray, who would slide in from right back, or Chris Aloisi. Veteran Wes Hart figures into the mix as well as an option on the right side.

"We're not set on anything right now, but we are looking at Chris in the middle or Kelly in the middle with Chris or Wes outside," said Earthquakes coach Dominic Kinnear, who hopes to get Robinson back for training in Columbus on Friday, but does not feel it is necessary in order for him to play Saturday. "We do have options, with guys who are versatile enough where they can play different positions."

Robinson will make the trip, but keeping in mind his history of injury problems and the recent setback suffered by Brian Ching, who reinjured his hamstring in a reserve match two weeks ago, he realizes that caution may be the best approach.

"If there were three games left in the season and we were battling for a playoff spot, it would be a different situation -- we're in good shape right now, there are still 15 or 16 games left," said Robinson, who conceded he probably wouldn't play if he could not train Friday. "You figure the older you get, the more you know your body, but I felt great Saturday, so it was definitely a shock to me."

The injury to Robinson comes at an inopportune time for the Earthquakes, who allowed just two goals in seven games before having to play the final hour on Saturday with just 10 men. Robinson is playing some of his best soccer since he joined the league in 2001, and together with Califf, they have formed one of the most dominant center back pairings in the league.

"I feel like I'm getting back to where I was a few years ago," said Robinson, who earned a national team call-up in 2002. "It's so easy [playing with Califf] because it takes a lot of the weight off of us in the back four. He's another smart player with a lot of experience who makes everybody's job easier."

The potential loss of the starting center backs threatens to slow the momentum the club has enjoyed the past month. One of the reasons for the improved play has been the emergence of Ricardo Clark, the center midfielder acquired from the MetroStars prior to the season as part of the Landon Donovan allocation. Clark, who has benefited from the insertion of attack-minded central midfielder Dwayne De Rosario into the lineup, allowing him to thrive in a defensive-minded role, scored a tremendous goal last Saturday to lift the 10-man Quakes to the tie against FC Dallas.

"He's been great for us, especially in the last month," said Kinnear. "A lot of people point to Danny Califf and Eddie together back there, but Ricardo's play has been excellent. He's doing everything for us, breaking up plays, moving the ball well, and he covers so much ground."

Danny Kadah is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.


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