SAN JOSE, Calif. – The San Jose Earthquakes built their 2012 roster hoping to be able to withstand the kind of injuries that derailed their 2011 season. Whether they've succeeded in that mission might make all the difference Saturday in Philadelphia as San Jose attempt to maintain their grasp on first place in the Western Conference (7 pm ET, watch LIVE online).
With left back Ramiro Corrales out due to a strained right calf and center back Víctor Bernárdez still weeks away from a return after spraining a left knee ligament in the team's 2-2 draw a New York, San Jose are expected to use a center back pairing of Jason Hernandez and Ike Opara (above) against the Union on Saturday. It would be just the second start of the season for both men, who jumped into the lineup last week to replace Corrales and Bernárdez during San Jose’s 3-1 victory over Real Salt Lake.
“Even before [RSL] went a man down, we didn’t skip a beat defensively,” Hernandez told MLSsoccer.com. “I think that’s an asset for us, to be strong on the backline no matter what lineup we put out there. I felt comfortable, I’m sure [Opara] felt the same way and hopefully we can carry that over this weekend.”
HIGHLIGHTS: SJ 3, RSL 1
This is the first chance Hernandez has gotten to jump back in the lineup after a calf strain scrambled his preseason. Opara came to camp healthy in his return from a second consecutive season-ending broken foot, but lost ground to Bernárdez and Justin Morrow through his time spent with the United States Under-23 national team, which shockingly lost out on an Olympic berth in CONCACAF qualifying.
“Any time you go through a challenge and adversity and disappointment, it tests your character,” Hernandez said. “It tests your heart and what you’re going to be about. To Ike’s credit, he came back here and got back to work. He’s definitely been helping the squad since he’s been back. Hopefully, a lot of those guys will use that experience in a positive way, to understand what they’re about when times get tough.”
It’s expected that the Quakes will use the same backline as they did last week against Real Salt Lake – Hernandez and Opara flanked by Morrow on the left side and Steven Beitashour on the right – even as Opara continues to battle tightness in his right hamstring. That quartet did well in the first 30 minutes when the clubs played even-up, but it’s hard to accurately gauge San Jose’s defensive efficiency given that RSL played a man down for the final 60 minutes and 11-on-9 for the last 21.
“I thought he played in good control on Saturday,” Quakes coach Frank Yallop said of Opara. “I thought he played a nice, controlled, mature game, to be honest. He didn’t really get exposed. He used his brain. Obviously, going a man down [makes defending easier]. But having said that, you’ve still got to do the right things in the match, and I think he did.”
There was one costly mistake by the Hernandez-Opara pairing, which led to RSL’s 53rd-minute equalizer. Opara’s attempted trap near midfield on a goal kick from Salt Lake’s Nick Rimando was picked off mid-air by midfielder Kyle Beckerman. RSL quickly sent the ball up the left wing, with Jonny Steele cutting a square pass in the direction of Álvaro Saborío.
Hernandez broke on Saborío, who simply dummied the ball, allowing Beckerman to take up possession. With Opara still trailing the play, Beckerman carried the ball into the vacant middle and slotted home past Jon Busch from 15 yards.
It’s not clear how much Opara’s hamstring problems kept him from being able to close the gap on Beckerman and possibly preventing the goal. But the Quakes certainly need him to keep playing despite the discomfort; if Opara can’t go, Yallop’s options are using holding midfielder Brad Ring as a center back or sliding Beitashour over and playing someone such as rookie winger Sam Garza at right back.
“Ike’s ready,” Yallop said. “He’s OK. He’s taking care of himself right now and managing through games. I thought he played well Saturday, and we need him for this Saturday.”
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.