San Jose Earthquakes call JJ Koval in moment of need, find reward despite four-month layoff

SAN JOSE, Calif. – With Victor Bernardez and Marc Pelosi suspended for Friday’s win-or-go-hibernate match against Sporting Kansas City, the San Jose Earthquakes’ playoff hopes might rest in part on the shoulders of a player who went more than four months between starts earlier this season.

That man is second-year midfielder JJ Koval, who was absent from coach Dominic Kinnear’s XIs between May 30 and Oct. 3, when he returned in a 1-1 tie against Vancouver. Koval, who was called into action as a holding midfielder against the Whitecaps, could easily see time there or as a center back against SKC.

“It’s an exciting time of year,” Koval told MLSsoccer.com last week. “I’m glad I was able to jump in and help the team. It’s fun to be a part of, for sure.”

With Pelosi and Fatai Alashe away on international duty, Koval fared relatively well as a holding midfielder against Vancouver – although his missed tackle on the edge of the Quakes’ defensive third was one of the first dominoes that fell in the Whitecaps’ scoring sequence.

It was a more impressive performance than many might have expected, given the long layoff. Koval received just 86 minutes as a substitute during the starting drought, failing to feature in 10 of San Jose’s 15 regular-season matches.

“JJ’s a professional,” Quakes veteran Clarence Goodson told reporters after the Whitecaps match. “He’s a guy that, I think, has done a good job when he’s been called upon. He’s ready to perform, and that’s a true sign of a professional.

“There’s a lot of people that aren’t playing that kind of turn off and – I wouldn’t say give up, but kind of throw in the towel in a little bit. You’ve seen it on many teams for many years, and he hasn’t done that. Full credit to him. He’s got a lot of pride in what he does.”

For his part, Kinnear never expected anything less.

“I don’t think it should be tough. If guys want to play, they should be ready to play,” Kinnear told MLSsoccer.com. “And I thought he played pretty good. In the second half, we asked him to be involved in more aerial duels, and he won quite a few.

“It probably gave him confidence, being around the ball like that in combative situations. At the times when he had the ball, he picked the right pass. He didn’t force anything.”

With Alashe back, Kinnear can use him alongside either Anibal Godoy in midfield or Goodson on the backline. Koval would be a likely choice for the other open slot.

“I feel comfortable with both,” Koval said of the two roles. “They’re obviously different positions and different skill sets, but I feel comfortable with either.

“That’s all I can do every day, is train and make sure I’m ready and sharp for both. I want to be on the field, wherever that is.”

If Koval does play, he could have a chance to redeem his seventh-minute shot against Vancouver. Firing a first-touch shot from 13 yards out off a bouncing cutback from Cordell Cato, Koval skied his attempt so high that it landed on the roof of the outdoor bar at the open end of Avaya Stadium, making him the first player to reach that spot in a game.

“I saw it skip up when I was striking it,” Koval said. “I knew I popped it up. I didn’t even watch it.

“I’m proud to be the first, though.”