The San Jose Earthquakes are enjoying their best season since a run of form in the early 2000s saw the franchise collect a pair of MLS Cups and a Supporters’ Shield. The coach for those two championships is also the coach today — Frank Yallop. Relying on the lessons started in 2001 and carrying through until he left the club to coach the Canadian national team, Yallop has fashioned the 2012 club in much the same image as he did in 2001-03.
From goal-scoring forwards to a resolute back line, the similarities between then and now are uncanny. And nowhere does the comparison ring more true than in the center of the midfield. In those San Jose championship years, the Earthquakes featured hard-as-nails Richard Mulrooney and maestro Ronnie Ekelund patrolling the Spartan Stadium pitch. Today, it is Sam Cronin and Rafael Baca repeating the feat at Buck Shaw Stadium.
Current assistant coach Ian Russell, who featured for the Earthquakes in 2001-03 as a speedy winger — the team has Marvin Chavez in that role today — admits that those teams can provide a blueprint for success.
"We always said when we were building the team, we wanted to get back to that style," said Russell, "where everyone is working for one another. We are seeing a lot of those similarities between our team now and those teams, especially in the chemistry between players."
A hallmark of those early teams was the steady play of Ekelund in the middle of the formation. His background as an attacking player early in is career and with the Danish national team provided him the insight to run the Earthquakes attack from his attacking midfielder driver’s seat. Since 2008, Yallop has looked to match the playmaking ability of the Great Dane, but a consistent presence could not be found.
And then, in circumstances that resonate to many as "The American Dream," a young midfielder, born in Mexico and raised in Southern California, made his way to San Jose. The tale is well told through the lens of MLSsoccer’s wonderful Journey to Excellence video series. Baca never wavered in his belief that he could play professional soccer, and the Earthquakes never gave up in helping him realize his dreams.
Since signing with the San Jose Earthquakes in July of last season, Baca has quickly asserted himself as a player to be reckoned with. Yallop wasted no time in getting the young midfielder into the first team, and by the end of August he was a regular in Yallop’s starting XI. Since that time, over the last 38 regular season matches, the Earthquakes boast an outstanding 20-9-9 record, and are one of only two teams, the Seattle Sounders are the other, to have not dropped two consecutive matches during that span.
Baca, to be sure, is not a bruising, physical midfielder in the mold of some current MLS stars. Listed at just 5’8" and 160 lbs, Baca is not going to win too many shoulder-to-shoulder battles with the likes of Sharlie Joseph for example. But none of that matters to the Earthquakes, especially with Cronin doing most of the dirty work in the midfield, since Baca is most effective directing traffic with the ball at his feet. For Russell, the similarities in what Ekelund did for the Earthquakes of 2001-03 are being paralleled — and sometimes surpassed — in what Baca is able to do for this year’s squad.
"He is very much like Ronnie," said Russell, "but a little bit different out there in that Baca covers more ground. Ronnie saw the game like no other; Baca is also technically good and phenomenal with the ball."
Baca, who just turned 23 years old a week ago, has quietly become the most influential player on the Earthquakes. Like clockwork, after every game Yallop is asked about the stability Baca brings to the midfield. He has been called the engineer of the Earthquakes express by San Francisco Chronicle soccer writer Alan Black. To the fans, Baca exemplifies what true grit and determination can do in combination with excellent soccer skills. To his teammates, he leads by example and shows a breadth of wisdom on the field that is beyond his years.
For the San Jose Earthquakes, Rafael Baca may very well be the key to earning the franchise another championship.