It would surely be an oversimplification to say that Danny Califf has been the cure-all for a San Jose Earthquakes defense that began the season as one of the leakiest in the league. But having the decorated veteran certainly has helped.
After opening the season by conceding at least two goals in each of their first five matches, the Earthquakes have registered four shutouts in their past six, including two in a row at home in scoreless draws against D.C. United and FC Dallas. And while most team members point to the second half of the 3-2 win against Kansas City on April 23 as the turning point for the defense, the arrival of Califf onto the scene has given the team a huge boost.
"Guys were pretty disappointed in terms of how we started the season defensively," said San Jose goalkeeper Pat Onstad. "People are now pretty determined to make sure we try to keep clean sheets, or at least make it difficult for other teams to break us down."
Califf, who missed the first eight games of the season with a right knee sprain, made his San Jose debut in a 1-0 win at Colorado on May 25. Since the former MLS All-Star and U.S. national team veteran joined the starting lineup, the Earthquakes have conceded just one goal in three games.
"Obviously, his ability is number one," said Onstad, "but secondly, something that we were lacking in the back is communcation. He organizes the back four and makes sure that guys are in the right spot even when we have the ball.
"It makes my job a little easier -- I can concentrate on what I have to do rather than worry about whether people are picked up properly."
What makes San Jose's defensive surge particularly impressive is the fact that the Quakes lost defensive stalwarts Craig Waibel and Troy Dayak to season-ending injuries within a one-week stretch in the middle of May. Ordinarily, one would expect some sort of transition period -- if not a downright dropoff -- with a new backline coming together, but the Earthquakes have not missed a step, with Califf taking over for Dayak and second-year pro Chris Aloisi moving into Waibel's right back spot.
"You figured there would be a transition phase, but all these guys have played in MLS," said San Jose head coach Dominic Kinnear. "There takes some getting used to each other when we have the ball, but defending is defending and all the players that have come in are good defenders."
Players and coaches alike point to the leadership skills and communication of Califf as key elements in the stabilization of the defense. Califf's voice can often be heard throughout the stadium, as he often reminds teammates of their marking responsibilities and controls the positioning of the backline.
"More than anything, he's a very good communicator, which helps a lot when you've got new guys in there," said defender Eddie Robinson. "With the level of play he's exhibited in the past, I don't think anybody had any doubts with him coming into the lineup."
A key byproduct of the emergence of Califf has been the improved play of Robinson, his partner in the center of defense. Robinson began the season slowly, suffering through a rash of bookings and penalty-kick giveaways. But he has taken his game to a higher level since being paired with Califf.
"It's great playing with him. It helps to play with someone who really takes charge on the field," said Robinson. "You can never have too many of those guys on the field. It takes a little bit of pressure off of everybody so you're able to concentrate a little more on your job."
Kinnear agrees that the presence of Califf has helped Robinson's development.
"I was expecting a good year from Eddie -- he's such an imposing physical presence who makes it difficult for any forward," added Kinnear. "You want him to be consistent, stay concentrated and I think Danny Califf has helped him be better at that."
With Califf now anchoring the backline, Kinnear feels that his team can begin to focus on the some of the finer points of back four play.
"I think defensively we're very good right now," said Kinnear. "The distribution out of the back can get better. All in all, though, we're limiting chances, which is what you need to do against the good players in this league."
Danny Kadah is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.