Justin Morrow of the San Jose Earthquakes
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Morrow steps into spotlight for Earthquakes' defense

SAN JOSE, Calif. – With Victor Bernardez out because of a sprained ligament in his left knee, it’s likely that Justin Morrow will no longer be the San Jose Earthquakes’ best-kept secret.

The powerful Bernardez – a 6-foot-2 Honduran international who looks every inch the Central Casting vision of a center back – helped San Jose rebuild a defense that closed last season with only one shutout in their last 15 matches. This season, the Quakes’ 0.67 goals-against-average, while suffering a bit last week in a 2-2 draw at New York, still ranks tied for fourth in MLS.

But while Bernardez has drawn the headlines, Morrow has been making equally important contributions as a center-back neophyte pressed into duty by injuries and absences during the preseason. The third-year product of Notre Dame, who came to the Quakes as a raw left winger/left back hybrid, has played so well that coach Frank Yallop is moved to look beyond San Jose while delivering his praise.

“It’s not just on our team,” Yallop told MLSsoccer.com. “I think Justin’s playing as well as anybody in the league.”

Morrow may be learning on the fly, but he’s passed all his tests so far, including helping quarterback San Jose to a shutdown second half against the Red Bulls on Saturday. New York had only one shot of any kind after intermission, and the Quakes dominated possession.

“Confidence is everything,” Yallop said of Morrow. “He’s been very assured, very clean with everything he’s done. He’s not got flustered at all, and that’s a very big part of being a defender. He’s not let anything [bother him], even when a ball slipped under his foot -- i.e., in Toronto when [Danny] Koevermans had a bit of a chance -- he’s not worried about that. I look at him now as a good professional player.”

Perhaps one of Morrow’s most impressive traits has been his ability to switch, mid-game, from a central position to wide left in two of San Jose’s last three matches. The moves have been necessitated by a couple of knocks on Quakes captain Ramiro Corrales, who is nonetheless expected to play Saturday when San Jose hosts Real Salt Lake in a battle between the Western Conference’s top two teams.

“It just shows his capabilities,” Quakes right back Steven Beitashour told MLSsoccer.com. “It’s tough to do in midseason – you’ve got that mindset, ‘OK, I’m a left back’ or ‘I’m a center back.’ Switching midgame, it’s even tougher, and he transitioned so well.”

Against the Red Bulls, Morrow moved wide for the final 10 minutes and felt like the Quakes’ conditioning work made the difference in terms of slowing down New York’s attack, which has tallied a league-leading 16 goals.

“I think our fitness as a team was a lot better than theirs,” Morrow told MLSsoccer.com. “I thought we really played with the ball well, and that really had a lot to do with it; when we lost it, we were able to get it back right away. We were always on the front foot in the second half, and I think our fitness does have something to do with that.”

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

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