SAN JOSE, Calif. — There were up-and-comers and fading stars. There was a TV soap star and a future TV soccer analyst. There were coaches-in-waiting by the bushel.
In all, there were 241 men who played for the 10 original MLS teams during the league’s inaugural 1996 season.
And San Jose Earthquakes captain Ramiro Corrales is in line to outlast every other one of them.
Fifteen years on, Corrales is one of only three members of the Class of ’96 left standing. Chivas USA goalkeeper Zach Thornton and LA Galaxy defender Frankie Hejduk are the others, although none of the three are considered true “MLS originals” by league purists because they spent time playing in Europe before returning Stateside.
While there’s speculation about the futures of both Thornton and Hejduk due to limited minutes this season, Corrales is still going strong for the Quakes. He’s started 27 of 31 matches this year — hopscotching from left back to left midfield to center back to center midfield, where he is expected to open Saturday when San Jose face New England (7:30 pm ET, watch LIVE online) — and is on pace to record his highest number of minutes in an MLS season since 1999.
“Nah, it never crossed my mind,” Corrales said about possibly being the final active ‘96er. “When I started, I was like, ‘I’ll be happy if I play 10, 12 years.’ This is my, what, 16th? I’m just happy I’m still going and can compete a little bit.”
Does he think he’ll outlast Hedjuk and Thornton?
“Well, they’re older than me,” laughed Corrales, who’s 34 to Hejduk’s 37 and Thornton’s soon-to-be 38. “I’m still young. So I’ve got a couple more years, hopefully.”
Corrales admits that his veteran status earns him the right to choose the best seat on the team bus and the comfiest cubicle in a visiting locker room, but it also opens him up for jokes from teammates.
“On the road, I think he goes and eats at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, but other than that, he’s great to have,” Quakes star Chris Wondolowski cracked. “I love giving him a hard time, but he’s a great player and still very youthful.”
Corrales may have lost a step over the player who won two titles with San Jose in 2001 and ’03, but that hasn’t kept him from being highly prized by head coach Frank Yallop.
“I don’t feel much slower than when I was 28, 29,” Corrales said. “Maybe I am, but I don’t really feel the difference. I’ve never been that fast guy that’s going to beat people one-on-one. That’s not my game. I usually try to be smart with the ball, connect passes and be available in the middle now that I’m playing there.”
Assuming Corrales returns in 2012, it won’t be simply as an ornamental figurehead. In fact, given the way Yallop has used him to plug holes in San Jose’s lineup this year, it will be interesting to see where Corrales ends up in training camp — or if Yallop continues to count on him as a jack-of-all-trades.
Corrales said he did have a preferred spot, and though he wouldn’t state it explicitly, it’s not hard to gather that playing farther up the field is more exciting.
“I like being involved,” Corrales said. “Obviously, when you’re playing in the middle, you’re more involved than when you play left back. This year I’ve played everywhere. Wherever I play, I try to contribute. I try to help the team. That’s the bottom line.”
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.