The names change and the roles change, but one thing remains constant through the middle of the MLS season: the San Jose Earthquakes continue to be one of the hottest teams in the league.
Despite playing without defensive leader Danny Califf (red card suspension) and national team call-ups Brad Davis (USA) and Dwayne De Rosario (Canada), San Jose improved its unbeaten run to seven games last weekend with a 2-1 win at Columbus. During that stretch -- which began with a 0-0 draw against D.C. United, the opponent this Friday -- the Earthquakes have vaulted past Los Angeles into sole possession of second place in the Western Conference.
For San Jose, there has been no magic formula; rather, the key to the club's success has been no more dramatic than a case of every man on the roster understanding his role. A perfect example arose in the win at Columbus, where newly acquired defender Kelly Gray made his first appearance at center back for the Earthquakes and seldom-used Wes Hart filled in at right back. Although the Crew created several chances and was dangerous throughout the match, San Jose was able to hold firm, and capitalized on a second-half strike by Ronald Cerritos to nab the 2-1 victory.
"Our team is just filled with talent, from the first guy to the 28th guy," said Gray, who was acquired from Chicago on June 14. "In training sessions it's always heated. It doesn't matter who's on what team -- it's going to be competitive. I think because of that, when people step into the first 11, we're comfortable with them."
Gray played a lot of center back growing up and said he was immediately comfortable playing with Ryan Cochrane in the FC Dallas game and Eddie Robinson last Saturday against the Crew. Head coach Dominic Kinnear was certainly comfortable inserting him into the center of defense.
"Kelly is a very composed player," said Kinnear. "He's a great passer of the ball out of the back and he's very calm under pressure. We've seen him play different positions with Chicago, so we knew he could do it and do it well."
Considering the fact that Robinson has been bothered by a hamstring problem of late -- and that Hart was solid in his first start of the season -- Kinnear has the option to play Gray alongside Califf and give his young star a break. However, he is leaning toward putting his strongest lineup on the field against D.C. United, which would indicate a resumption of the Califf-Robinson pairing that has sparked the Earthquakes' run.
"You always want to try to put your best team on the field," said Kinnear. "When you look at the schedule, we have a chance to go into the All-Star break with more wins than we had all of last year. Besides, if I asked Eddie if he wanted a break, he'd tell me flat out no."
With Canada failing to advance in the Gold Cup, De Rosario should be available for Friday's match at D.C. United. That would allow Ricardo Clark to slide back to a more pure defensive midfield position, a role in which he has thrived since rejoining the starting lineup in place of Danny O'Rourke. After scoring a brilliant goal to bring the short-handed Quakes to a 2-2 draw at FC Dallas July 2, Clark followed up with the game-winning assist against the Crew off a breathtaking run down the left sideline and feed to Cerritos.
"Ricardo's had a great stretch ever since he got back into the lineup," said Kinnear. "He's more comfortable than he was early in the season and his confidence is higher."
The first time San Jose matched up with D.C., the result was a hard-fought 0-0 draw. D.C. was able to use a five-man midfield to completely thwart the San Jose attack, leaving the Earthquakes somewhat fortunate to come away with a draw.
"They're much better than their record suggests," said Kinnear. "They made life difficult for us, caught us on a bit of a bad night. We were good to get a result."
If D.C. United plays Freddy Adu in an attacking role coming from the left, where he was very effective in last week's 1-0 loss to Kansas City, Gray may find himself in yet another new role: chasing after a just-turned 16-year-old. But rest assured, neither he nor the rest of the Quakes are likely to be fazed with a new assignment.
Danny Kadah is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.