SANTA CLARA, Calif. – San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Rafael Baca isn’t letting his 24 Under 24 snub distract him from his mission.
His omission from the rankings of MLS’ top two dozen young players was confirmed on Friday when Vancouver rookie Darren Mattocks was revealed as this year’s No. 1. For the first time in the poll’s three years, the Quakes were shut out entirely; Simon Dawkins was No. 21 last year, and Ike Opara ranked No. 11 as a rookie in 2010.
Baca doesn’t have spectacular individual statistics – one goal and three assists this year – but he has been a critical cog in the middle of the MLS’ most prolific offense, helping direct traffic for a San Jose attack that sits on a franchise-record 60 goals with five matches left, including Saturday at Seattle (10:30 pm ET, watch LIVE online).
“I’m don’t know the criteria that’s involved [in being selected], so I’m not really surprised by that,” Baca told MLSsoccer.com after training Friday. “I think that comes secondary to whatever my team’s doing. It’s not really as important as it is to finish strong in the regular season and move into the playoffs.”
From San Jose coach Frank Yallop’s perspective, the slight isn’t worth worrying over, since the team’s valuation of Baca differs significantly from that of outsiders.
“I don’t mind what anyone thinks of Rafa,” Yallop told MLSsoccer.com. “I know he’s really good for us. I know what he brings to the team. Maybe it’s not with flashiness, but he’s a good player. It’s just other people’s opinions. We know, inside of this team, what we think of Rafa, for sure.”
Zakuani could follow Songo'o's path
It was a strange sight Wednesday, given the way San Jose’s midfield have bossed most opponents this year: Portland’s Franck Songo’o repeatedly carrying the ball for 30 yards or more at a clip, knifing through the Quakes defense in the Timbers’ 2-2 tie at Buck Shaw Stadium.
Songo’o set up Danny Mwanga’s second goal with such a run. He was also taken down in the midst of a second ramble (leading to a yellow card for San Jose’s Sam Cronin) and used a third lengthy jaunt to put Bright Dike in position to steal a victory at the death.
Yallop sees the problem as a one-off situation, brought about in part by the fact it was San Jose’s second match in five days.
“I just think we’ve got to be smarter with stopping guys getting on a good run,” Yallop said. “Someone’s got to either foul them or make a better effort to get the ball. I’m not saying hack him down, but make sure you go in strong so it disrupts his run. Tired legs come into it, just getting caught a step slower than normal.
"But again, I’m not going to nitpick with these guys. They’ve done terrifically well. It’s not a trait of ours, at all, that we allow people running through the middle of our field.”
Proving that’s the case becomes a little more urgent this weekend given that San Jose should face Seattle speedster Steve Zakuani. It would be Zakuani’s first appearance against the Quakes in almost 18 months, before he suffered a devastating broken leg in April 2011.
“He’s proven, even since he’s been back, that he’s good and sharp,” Quakes midfielder Sam Cronin said of Zakuani. “We’ve got to keep an eye on him, for sure.”
Opara a question mark?
Defender Ike Opara has put in a couple of strong performances in the past week, but he missed training Friday after not feeling well Thursday night. Yallop said the 23-year-old was undergoing tests but could still play in Seattle.
If Opara’s not able to go, veteran Jason Hernandez will presumably step in on San Jose’s backline. Yallop could slide Justin Morrow inside and drop Ramiro Corrales to left back, but that’s less likely given that wingers Marvin Chávez and Shea Salinas are both missing the trip due to muscle strains, making Corrales’ contributions more valuable at left midfield.
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.