The San Jose Earthquakes concluded a successful two-game home stand last weekend with a heroic defensive effort against FC Dallas. Playing a man down for more than half the game, the Quakes survived wave after wave of Dallas attacks to eke out an improbable 2-1 victory. Coupled with a midweek scoreless draw against Colorado, San Jose was able to take four points from two games.
While not a clean sheet victory against Dallas - Michel's incredible free kick goal was unstoppable by any defensive wall and able goalkeeper - the one goal conceded against the Hoops was an incredible accomplishment for a defense that was under tremendous pressure, but one that has week in and week out been the bedrock of the team.
And now, with the World Cup looming and center backs Clarence Goodson and Victor Bernardez expected to miss nearly two months while with their national teams in training and Brazil, head coach Mark Watson will have to lean on the other defenders on his roster to get the job done. One of the prime candidates to make a mark in May and June is Ty Harden.
"Every time Ty has played for us this year, he has done really well, really well," Watson emphasized to Center Line Soccer. "Wednesday night against Colorado, he was excellent, and if it wasn't for a bunch of games in a short amount of time and knowing we had to rest some bodies, he deserved to start against Dallas. He will now, with the guys being away for the World Cup, be crucial to us."
Harden joined the Earthquakes as part of the 2012 MLS Re-Entry Draft, and he started the first seven games of the 2013 season at either center back or right back. Showing a steadiness on defense that belied the often start-stop nature of his MLS career, the 30-year old looked set to make an impact before an injury and subsequent surgery, forced him to shut down for the season. So far in 2014, he has made four appearances, including a memorable start - and a goal scored - in the CONCACAF Champions League.
"I'm doing well," Harden told Center Line Soccer. "My body is really coming around. Obviously, I had the surgery last year and it has taken me awhile to recover, but now I feel great, and I haven't missed a day of training this year. Since the preseason, I have been able to build into it, and that is something that Watson, Doyle, and I talked about doing."
With news that center back stalwart Bernardez has been suspended for this weekend's match against the Seattle Sounders, the Earthquakes will by necessity need to station Harden in the center of the defensive line. Who his partner will be remains to be seen - Jason Hernandez is still coming back from an injury, so rookie JJ Koval might be conscripted into the role - but Harden does not see that as a problem for a San Jose team with depth on the roster.
"That is one thing the Earthquakes have always been about," Harden said. "When a guy gets the chance, he steps up. It's a very good team spirit and camaraderie within our group, so we are always ready for that next guy to step up every time."
"With the injuries we've had, we've used a lot more players so far this year," Watson added. "Guys have been able to play that maybe wouldn't have. We are going to need everyone in this next month, especially with the World Cup and the other injuries that will keep guys out."
With Harden, his injury in the past and his match fitness improving every week, the Quakes have a more than capable defender to fill the absences in the line-up. One of his strongest attributes is his versatility, something that started at the youth level, but has continued to be a hallmark of his game even in the professional ranks.
"I grew up doing that," Harden described. "I played all over the back line, even a little bit in the midfield, though not at this level. Even professionally, I have played at all four positions on the back line, so I feel comfortable anywhere in there."
The trustworthy defender, with his casual demeanor, does not have the imposing presence of Bernardez, nor at 6'1" tall does he have the elevation of Goodson. But Harden is his own style of player, one with a penchant for good positioning and relentless effort. His heroic effort against Toluca, holding the Mexican hosts to a lone goal over 90 minutes of regulation and 30 minutes of extra time, opened up the eyes of most observers as to what the 30-year old Oregon native was capable of.
"He's strong and very reliable," Watson assessed. "He's been around the game a long time and gained a lot of experience. It's very similar to his personality: he's a great guy, a solid player, and he'll give you everything he has."
A second-round selection by the LA Galaxy in the 2007 MLS SuperDraft, Harden had his most prolific season in 2011 with Toronto FC. His 24 starts that season, the same number of starts he made his rookie season with LA, is a high water mark he has not come close to reaching since. Harden has remained unfazed by the road bumps he has faced in his MLS career and instead soldiers on as steady as they come.
"My personality is not one of a guy that is loud and yells," Harden explained. "I try when I am on the field playing to be more vocal, but I'm not the type to scream at people. In the locker room, I try to step up and lead since I've been in the league a lot longer. I talk to guys individually on a one-to-one basis as well."
He may characterize himself as a quiet leader in the clubhouse, a quality that he shares with almost the entire Earthquakes locker, but Harden is so much more than that for his teammates. In last week's scoreless draw against the Rapids, a game he started when Goodson was ruled out in the lead-up to the game, Harden stepped in with the poise of a World Cup hopeful and helped settle a Quakes defensive line that had seen plenty of changes over the first quarter of the season.
"His performance against Colorado was a perfect display of that, a very rock solid performance," Watson said. "That's what we've come to expect of Ty and we are going to need that over the next month."
Challenge accepted, as Harden will begin his reign as starting Earthquakes center back this weekend against the Sounders. And with his early season performances a guide on which to judge, he expects no less than the best from himself.
"Every time they've called my name," Harden stated, "I've stepped up and delivered."