As the MLS Cup playoffs get set to begin, the MLSsoccer.com series "Playoffs In Profile" will take a look at the players and personalities who will each play a crucial role in their teams' hopes of winning the MLS Cup.
In this installment, San Jose Earthquakes beat writer Geoff Lepper breaks down the career resurrection of Bobby Convey and how he's helped lead the Quakes to the postseason for the first time since 2008. Injury cut his career short in England, but Convey is intent on proving that he's one of the legue's most talented players. Check back with MLSsoccer.com to read the latest story as the "Playoffs in Profile" series continues this week
SAN JOSE, Calif. – When Bobby Convey arrived this spring for his second season with the San Jose Earthquakes, he was determined to familiarize the rest of the Quakes with someone they hadn’t met before.
The real Bobby Convey.
Three years removed from microfracture surgery on his right knee – which fixed an injury so severe it brought his English Premier League career to a shuddering halt – Convey arrived in the Bay Area finally feeling like his body was 100 percent right.
“For me, it was just about coming in as fit as I could and having everyone see who I really was,” Convey told MLSsoccer.com. “When you do get injured, it makes you want to come back and prove to yourself – and others – that you can play and do what you did before. I feel like this year, that’s what I’ve done.”
[inline_node:317279]In the process, Convey has shown the league how far he’s come since being the youngest player ever signed by MLS – a mere 16 when he was drafted by D.C. United in 2000. He’s also proven just how much he can give to a Quakes franchise that went a combined 15-27-18 in their two seasons after being reborn in 2008.
“I think as of late, he’s maturing now as a person, and I really think he’s become a valuable asset for that team,” said interim D.C. United coach Ben Olsen, a mentor for Convey when they spent more than four years as teammates in Washington. “When he was young, he was extremely talented but still missing a little bit of something. Now I think you’re seeing he’s a more well-rounded, complete player.”
As the Quakes burst out of the gate this season on a 5-2-1 tear – compared to last year’s 1-7-2 debacle – it was the 27-year-old Convey leading the way from his natural spot on the left wing. He assisted on five of San Jose’s 12 goals during those eight matches, but really set the tone with his work at the other end of the field.
“I know [Golden Boot winner Chris Wondolowski] has had a hell of a season, but if it wasn’t for Wondo, [Convey] would be our guy,” Quakes right back Chris Leitch told MLSsoccer.com. “There isn’t a fault in his game at all. The man is very threatening going forward, when he has the ball at his feet especially, and he can run onto the ball.
“He can serve a good ball in, obviously, based on his assist total," Leitch added. "He can finish, too. But it’s more than that. You watch games and you see him make 20-yard runs, go around guys, tackling guys. That, to me, means more than what he brings to the table offensively. When he does that defensively, that fires me up. I think it fires everyone up.”
Hard Times In England
This is all a far cry from the Convey that Quakes fans saw when he arrived just before the 2009 season. Convey often looked a step slow or even disinterested as he bounced from position to position in coach Frank Yallop's lineups.
But while fans and observers may have equated Convey’s sluggishness with unhappiness, he says it was a lingering aftereffect of a right knee that had bothered him for years.
“It’s difficult when you get criticized when you know you’re not 100 percent fit or healthy,” Convey said. “I knew it was a process and I knew it would take time, but in professional sports, that’s not how it goes.”
[inline_node:321778]The problems with Convey’s knee originated during the tail end of his 2005-06 campaign with Reading, when the joint “just popped,” in Convey’s words, during a match.
He was playing some of the best soccer of his career, helping the Royals set a Football League Championship single-season record with 106 points and earn a first-ever promotion to the EPL.
Convey played through the injury in order not to miss the 2006 World Cup, and had “a quick scope” after the tournament in an attempt to clean out the knee and still be healed in time for Reading’s EPL debut that fall.
By October, however, as Reading faced Manchester United, Convey realized that he simply couldn’t run. Given that running had been one of the fundamental components of Convey’s game from its inception, something else had to be done, so he came back to the US and underwent microfracture surgery in March 2007.
Afterwards, Convey embarked on an arduous road back to health. He played for the Royals in 2007-08, but not very effectively. The following season, Convey didn’t make a single league appearance for Reading before being released from his contract in February so he could quickly join the Quakes.
Convey admitted that during his English inactivity, he entertained thoughts of quitting the game entirely. But that just didn’t seem to sit well.
“I didn’t want to end on an injury," he said. "To be retired at 24 or 25 wasn’t what I started out thinking about doing. And I knew that it wasn’t at that point yet.”
Even though it ended poorly, Convey’s time in England sharpened his already heightened sense of aggressiveness, a trait that Olsen describes as “ultra-competitive.”
“I learned a lot in England,” Convey said. “Your position is always up for grabs. It was a team, but everyone really pushed each other. You just learned to be cutthroat and competitive every single day.”
Back To The Bay
Convey brought that flinty attitude with him to the Quakes this season, helping lend toughness to a franchise that hadn’t shown much gumption in its first two campaigns.
[inline_node:316434]“It’s the mental side of things, I think, that is the big difference between then and now,” Quakes goalkeeper Jon Busch said of Convey now versus the teenaged version who broke into the league. “He’s just grown up as a professional. He’s learned to be a good pro.”
That includes learning to bite his tongue even as Yallop moved him to left back for four games in place of the injured Ramiro Corrales.
“I want to win and I want to do what the team needs me to do,” Convey said. “I don’t mind playing there, but it’s just difficult to affect the game the way you can [at left midfield]. It doesn’t give you the freedom that I had in the first half of the season to be as creative as I was.”
It didn’t hurt that Convey has been playing on an upgraded Quakes roster this season. Wondolowski emerged from nowhere to lead the league with 18 goals, while Khari Stephenson was added at midseason to bring attacking creativity to the central midfield and the club’s first Designated Player, Geovanni, joined in August.
“Not only is he playing much better and probably healthy and feeling up to speed, but the team’s been much better,” Olsen said. “And that’s a big part of success in this league, especially for guys like Bobby, who are providers out there. Bobby’s a runner, Bobby swings a good ball in. So he needs guys to be on the end of things. And he needs people to find him when he runs off the ball, because he’s a very busy player.”
That work rate exemplifies the kind of team Yallop has been trying to build – one that is hard to break down, but always quick to pounce on an opponent’s mistake. The Quakes may not be favorites to beat New York when the Eastern Conference semifinals open on Saturday at Buck Shaw Stadium, but it shouldn’t be because the Red Bulls put more effort in.
“The kind of two-way play that Bobby’s showing is contagious,” Leitch said. “That’s the beautiful thing of it. It’s not just one man doing work backwards and forwards. He’s rubbing off on other people, and other people are saying, ‘Well, here’s Bobby working his ass off both ways. I should be doing the same thing.’”
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. On Twitter: @sjquakes
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