For San Jose Earthquakes manager Frank Yallop, one of the more befuddling aspects of this expansion season has been the team's erratic play from game to game. A prime example is reflected in how a 3-0 stinker at home against Los Angeles was sandwiched between stellar road efforts at Columbus and Real Salt Lake. Now as the team heads to the nation's capital this weekend to take on D.C. United, finding some level of consistency will be foremost in the San Jose coach's mind.
On the one hand such wild fluctuations in play are to be expected from a team in its first season of playing together. But on the other, part of the reason Yallop went the veteran route in assembling his squad was to avoid such precipitous peaks and valleys. For the Quakes' head man, it all starts with the team's mentality.
"When we step on the field, we're just trying to get the guys to focus and make sure that we do give a 100 percent effort," said Yallop. "It doesn't mean running around, it means concentrating. Our effort to run has been OK, but our aggression to close people down, when that's missing, we're not good."
Of course, the Quakes' cause has not been helped by international commitments, as well as an untimely run of injuries that has hobbled the backline, a problem made worse by Jason Hernandez's ejection in Wednesday's gritty 0-0 draw with Real Salt Lake.
Fortunately for San Jose, some help might be on the way. Defender Nick Garcia has recovered sufficiently from a right knee injury to at least be in contention for this weekend's contest. Ryan Cochrane, fresh off a courageous display in Utah that saw him contribute 39 priceless minutes on a tender right ankle, got through the match well enough to be a candidate to start as well.
But even if one of those players isn't able to go, the defensive display on Wednesday by Kelly Gray should do plenty to ease Yallop's concerns. With both Garcia and Cochrane unable to start the game, Gray was thrown into the center of defense, and delivered a solid performance.
Gray's contribution has been both timely and unexpected. The irony is that when Gray was acquired from Colorado back on May 21, most of the attention was lavished on the other player obtained in the deal; forward Jovan Kirovski. Given the Quakes' continued struggles in attack, that made sense at the time, but with Kirovski sidelined by an ankle injury, it has been Gray who has made the bigger contribution, with his versatility proving to be a huge plus for San Jose. For Gray, being put in the center of defense wasn't a completely new experience.
"I had played there in some reserve games for Colorado, so it hadn't been that long since I'd played there," said Gray. "And I've always been pretty comfortable in the back."
Gray's stellar form will be put to the ultimate test on Sunday, given that United, as well as forward Luciano Emilio, are red hot at the moment. The Black-and-Red started the season in terrible form, going 2-7-0, but has since rallied to go unbeaten in their last four games.
That run has coincided with Emilio's brilliant play, as the Brazilian has scored in each game during their current run. The hosts also possess a varied attack, with Marcelo Gallardo and Fred pulling the strings from midfield, while Jaime Moreno uses his veteran savvy to help the offense as well.
But where United have struggled has been in defense, where they have yet to record a clean sheet in league play this season. Yallop feels that United are especially vulnerable in transition.
"If we can get the ball and break quickly on them, we may get some opportunities for us," said Yallop.
But that will only happen if San Jose can carry the same attitude into Sunday's game that they did against RSL, which is something Gray feels the team is capable of replicating.
"On Wednesday we were forced to step up and respond to the situation," said Gray of playing a man down. "The question becomes whether we can do that week in and week out. I think we're close to stringing a good amount of performances together."
Jeff Carlisle is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.