SAN JOSE, Calif. — A match in Seattle may preclude San Jose Earthquakes rookie Matt Luzunaris from being physically present, but his spirit will still be felt Saturday evening in the Bay Area.
The Quakes are sponsoring a team in the Light the Night fundraiser for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, which will take place at Palo Alto High School just a few hours before the club kicks off at CenturyLink Field on Saturday night (10:30 pm ET, watch LIVE online). And to Luzunaris, who has been a stalwart all year when it comes to off-field appearances, this event holds special significance.
When he was 12 years old, Luzunaris’ brother Sean — then just 16 — passed away from a rare childhood cancer. And earlier this year, Luzunaris’ girlfriend, former University of Miami goalkeeper Austen Everett, suffered a relapse of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, marking her third bout with the disease.
“It’s an important cause, to me and to her and to her family,” Luzunaris said. “But, to be honest, it doesn’t matter what cancer we’re supporting. It’s all important. ... I know how many people need that support and how important that support is.”
Luzunaris has worked hard to maintain his focus on the field even as Everett has undergone another series of chemotherapy treatments — this time, at a higher dosage than before — in Seattle, where her family is located. She’s also preparing for another stem-cell transplant, hopefully in December.
“At the beginning, it was hard,” Luzunaris said. “We just felt like we’re going to move on with our lives, move on to the next step and then this hit us and it was just shocking. Right now, I’m not really concerned. She has a great attitude and the doctors seem really positive. Coming out here, it’s great because it keeps my mind off of it.”
In the meantime, the 22-year-old Luzunaris has been fighting to gain not just playing time in the short-term, but to make Quakes coach Frank Yallop see him as a viable candidate for the long haul.
With San Jose ranked 16th out of 18 MLS clubs in terms of scoring, the team is clearly looking to upgrade its attack. That could spell trouble for young forwards such as Luzunaris, 21-year-old Ellis McLoughlin and 24-year-old Maxwell Griffin, who are all trying to make a positive impression over the final two weeks of the Quakes’ disappointing season.
Yallop said he was happy with Luzunaris’ effort in practice despite a paucity of regular-season minutes — only 63, spread over six appearances — but made it clear that his game is not yet a polished product.
“Matt’s still working on a lot of those things other than [actions] in front of goal: holding the ball up, being strong and being a good possession guy, because in the end, if you can’t keep the ball, then as a team we’ll struggle,” Yallop said. “But he’s working on those things. He’s trying his best to. He’s worked hard at that and he’s trying to do that.”
Luzunaris said that he would love to come back to San Jose — positing that he and Golden Boot holder Chris Wondolowski “could be a great pair up top” — and feels that he has improved markedly since the beginning of the year.
“It’s kind of a gray area right now,” Luzunaris said of returning. “I’m just doing what I can do here and it is what it is. If the coaches decide that they don’t want me here next year, then that’s OK. I’m fine with that. I know what I’m capable of and I know what I have to offer, so I’m sure the next team would love to have me around.”
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.