When a team qualifies early for the MLS Cup Playoffs, a two-fold challenge emerges: keep playing well, and stay healthy. The San Jose Earthquakes certainly achieved the former goal with impressive road wins against New England and Los Angeles in the season's final weeks. But when it comes to the latter, the Quakes haven't been so lucky.
Defender Wade Barrett tweaked a hamstring while on national team duty. Forward Ronald Cerritos injured an ankle against FC Dallas three weeks ago, while sometime running mate Alejandro Moreno suffered the same fate against Los Angeles. And Brad Davis' on-again, off-again groin injury is most definitely on, with the midfielder returning to St. Louis for yet another opinion on his condition.
Even though Barrett and Cerritos are expected to return in time for Sunday's opening playoff game against Los Angeles, all of a sudden, the Quakes aren't nearly as deep as they would probably like, especially in attack.
"[The injuries] will test us," said Earthquakes head coach Dominic Kinnear. "But I think we'll be OK."
Kinnear's confidence is in his reserves has been rewarded throughout this storybook season in that players deputizing for their injured teammates have usually come through.
The latest player to produce off the bench has been rookie forward Julian Nash. Given his first real chance at extended playing time, the Creighton product has played well, scoring his first league goal against Real Salt Lake in the final home game of the season, and also providing valuable minutes in the season finale when Moreno was felled by a challenge from L.A. midfielder Cobi Jones.
Nash's contribution has been noticed by the San Jose head coach.
"[Nash] is a big strong guy, so he's hard to move from his spot," said Kinnear. "I think he causes problems for guys because they think he can muscle him, and he's a bit stronger than they think he is. He's been good down the stretch here."
In his brief stints, Nash has shown a willingness to take players on and make surging runs to the goal. But the native of San Leandro, Calif., says that playing with his back to goal is the area of this game that has seen the most improvement.
"I've gotten better using my body against bigger, stronger, faster defenders," said Nash. "Just holding the ball up and playing simple."
Given his 6-foot, 185-pound frame, one would expect that excellent hold-up play would have long been a staple of Nash's repertoire, but the Quakes rookie conceded that in college he was more likely to run at opposing players. Not that Nash has completely abandoned that part of his game, but the experience gained throughout his rookie season has taught him to pick his spots.
"I'm playing smarter, so I'm losing the ball less," said Nash.
That improvement was evident in the buildup to the Earthquakes last goal on Saturday, when Nash opted to hold up Mark Chung's entry pass rather than try to turn his marker. The rookie's return feed to Chung was eventually centered into the box, where Brian Mullan hammered home Brian Ching's knockdown.
With the playoffs now approaching, Nash feels his season-long education is ready to bear even more fruit.
"If [Cerritos] and [Moreno] can't play due to injury, then I'm definitely ready to go," said Nash. "If I get that chance, I feel like I can utilize it."
That's been the story of San Jose's year so far.
Jeff carlisle is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.