Faces of First Kick: Jason Hernandez
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Faces of First Kick: Jason Hernandez

SAN JOSE, Calif. – When Jason Hernandez pulls out his smart phone to play the “What I Did This Offseason” game with his San Jose Earthquakes teammates, his photos tell a different tale than most everyone else’s.

Where other players may have sun-filled snapshots of beach-themed revelry, Hernandez’s memories have a significantly lowered frivolity count.

“Every time I get home in the offseason, I have projects and rooms to paint and objects to put together that my mom and dad purchased,” Hernandez said. “I take pictures of everything, just to let people know, ‘You’re traveling, you’re going to LA and Miami, but I’m here putting together cabinets. Handyman-style.’”

The unusual choice of winter vacation spots – his hometown of Englewood, N.J., where his parents still live – and Hernandez’s willingness to play the dutiful son, raking leaves and shoveling snow during the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, should come as no surprise to anyone who’s watched him quarterback the San Jose defense over the past three years.

“He’s one of those guys who brings his lunch pail to work every day and just does his job,” Quakes goalkeeper Jon Busch said. “And those guys, in this league, are going to be successful.”

Hernandez, 27, who will begin his seventh MLS season on Saturday when the Quakes host Real Salt Lake, has never been more successful. He started 27 of 30 regular-season matches last year for a San Jose defense that set a team record with 13 shutouts. Hernandez was primarily used at center back, but he filled in with aplomb on the right side when injuries struck the Quakes hard in the middle of the season. The only matches he missed were to serve a two-game suspension and to avoid needless injury just before the playoffs.

[inline_node:331130]The transformation in Hernandez, who played for New York and Chivas USA before being plucked by San Jose in their expansion draft before the 2008 season, has been a steady climb that was aided by his eagerness to learn.

As a Red Bulls rookie out of Seton Hall in 2005, Hernandez couldn’t buy playing time from coach Bob Bradley until the very end of the year. In 2009, after establishing himself on the Quakes’ back line, Hernandez was invited by Bradley to work with his new club – the US men’s national team.

“I’ve seen him go from a guy who’s trying to soak up information from the older guys, like Youri Djorkaeff and Bob Bradley, transitioning to being the veteran guy and lending his advice and support to the younger guys,” said Quakes defender Chris Leitch, who played with Hernandez in New York in ‘05. “I have seen him from his first days in the league until now, and he’s made drastic improvements along the way.”

Solidarity In San Jose

At 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, Hernandez doesn’t have the classic size that teams look for in a center back. And though he’s made his share of spectacular saves off the end line in his Quakes career, Hernandez’s game is the antithesis of SportsCenter.

WATCH: Hernandez clears off the line vs. Red Bulls

Subtly redirecting an opposing forward so his run and the cross intended for his head never intersect, as Hernandez so often does, doesn’t really translate into highlight material.

“I think over the years, playing with a lot of older guys, I’ve gotten a good understanding of reading the game,” Hernandez said. “The decisions that I try to make on the field are [designed to] make the other team forfeit their most advantageous option. Sometimes, that [means] not going down on a tackle, that’s not taking a chance on a through ball.

[inline_node:331131]“Sometimes, that’s just knowing where to be, and where to be in relation to my teammates. That doesn’t show up on the stat sheet, but I don’t think other teams like to see it and I think my teammates really appreciate it.”

They also appreciate Hernandez’s willingness to stick up for his teammates, which manifested itself most clearly in the Quakes’ 1-0 win over Kansas City on Aug. 14. In the 88th minute, Hernandez received a straight red card after chopping down Sporting forward Teal Bunbury with an off-the-ball elbow to the throat.

To Hernandez, it was imperative that someone stand up for then-new acquisition Tim Ward, who had been bloodied by a Bunbury elbow earlier in the half. Even if it meant taking that two-game suspension and $500 fine from the league for the excessive nature of the foul.

“I know if it was me in the same role and I was going to a different club and someone took a cheap shot at me, I would hope that someone who’s been around would step up and show that there’s solidarity,” Hernandez said. “We’re all one team and no one’s going to have a go at us and walk away scot-free.”

A Natural Leader

As it happened, Hernandez was wearing the captain’s armband in that game, serving in place of injured veteran Ramiro Corrales. While Hernandez says the role will belong to Corrales for “as long as he’s here,” it’s Hernandez’s voice that rings out the loudest in the Quakes’ locker room or prematch huddle.

“Ramiro is also a great leader, but I think if you go to everyone in the locker room, Jason’s the top leader,” Quakes forward Chris Wondolowski said. “If he says something, you take it to heart.”

As Leitch put it: “Some guys say, ‘Oh, this guy’s a leader, that guy’s a leader.’ Jason Hernandez is for sure a leader.”

It all means that more pressure will be brought to bear on Hernandez and a Quakes defense that is expected to equal, if not top, last year’s performance.

“For the most part, my whole career has kind of been more of a blue-collar, grind-it-out-each-year thing, slowly improving and making a name for myself – but not necessarily on anything that has to do with media or hype or anything like that,” Hernandez said. “It’s just hard work between the lines.”

If you don’t believe it, he’s got the photos to prove it.

Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at sanjosequakes@gmail.com. On Twitter: @sjquakes

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