It would be natural for a rookie to be pretty nervous about getting his first professional start while playing a wholly unfamiliar position in front of a hostile Mexican crowd at an altitude of nearly 9,000 feet.
J.J. Koval simply chose to take in the situation from another perspective entirely.
With the San Jose Earthquakes’ backline decimated by injury, Koval, a defensive midfielder by trade, was pushed into service as a center back against Toluca in the second leg of the team’s CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal. Yet the 21-year-old Stanford product, selected ninth overall in this year’s SuperDraft, showed no hint of anxiety Wednesday night at Estadio Nemesio Díez.
“I was just really excited, excited to be on the field,” Koval told MLSsoccer.com by phone from Kansas City on Friday. “I felt ready. I wasn’t going to be playing center mid, I was going to be playing center back, but that was something that I saw as a great opportunity to show well and do my best to contribute to the team.
“I don’t think I’m nervous. …You could look at it the other way, as an opportunity to not do well. If you look at it that way, I guess you are going to be nervous. I just like to look at it in a positive light.”
Koval ended up thriving against the top-seeded Liga MX side, delivering a game-high 12 clearances, according to Opta Stats, in a 1-1 draw that included 30 minutes of overtime – then drilling a spot kick in the fifth round of what would become a 5-4 victory on PKs for Toluca.
“I would say we had those types of expectations for him, but I think he’s impressed us every time he’s been out there,” Quakes coach Mark Watson told MLSsoccer.com by phone from Toluca on Wednesday. “He’s a good player. He’s got fantastic conditioning. He’s got great leadership qualities. He talks a lot, which is something that first-year guys don’t normally do.”
It’s possible Koval could make his first league start Saturday as the banged-up Quakes take on MLS Cup champions Sporting Kansas City (8:30 pm ET; FREE MLS Stream of the Week), who were also knocked out of CCL play this week.
At center back, Victor Bernardez is available, but Jason Hernandez is expected to miss at least a couple weeks with a left quadriceps strain, and US international Clarence Goodson is listed as questionable with a right calf strain. Left back Jordan Stewart remains out with a right hamstring strain, and right back Brandon Barklage is questionable due to left hip tightness.
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There are also plain old fatigue concerns for Watson. Four field players have put in at least 269 minutes since the opening game against Toluca on March 11, and all of them feature in high-energy spots: forward Steven Lenhart, midfielders Sam Cronin and Shea Salinas and winger-turned-emergency right back Cordell Cato.
Whatever the case may be Saturday, the Quakes clearly seem to have found a valuable piece in Koval, who didn’t really allow himself any moments to drink in the atmosphere in Toluca – even though he admitted it was likely the loudest crowd he’d ever seen for one of his games.
“Not really during the game, only because I wanted to jump into it, to act like I’ve been there before,” Koval said. “I think that also helps, acting like you’ve been there before. I think that gives you confidence.”
If the current trend continues, pretty soon it won’t be an act for Koval.