When the San Jose Earthquakes signed Clarence Goodson last summer, they immediately paired the incoming U.S. international defender with Honduran star Victor Bernardez as part of the team's center back tandem. A formidable duo, Goodson and Bernardez ruled the Quakes backline over the second half of the MLS season, repelling all those who would storm the San Jose goal, leading the team to the brink of the MLS Cup playoffs.
Or so goes the story. Truth be told, the Earthquakes success late in 2013 was also a result of the steady play of defender Jason Hernandez, pushed into the role of understudy with Goodson's arrival, but still available to step into the starting lineup when called on. In fact, the aforementioned first-choice center backs each made nine starts over the last 12 games of the season, 75% of the total. Hernandez made five.
Almost forgotten over the past year, Hernandez has refused to sit idly by on the Quakes bench. Instead, the 30-year old, playing his tenth MLS season, has trained hard and been ready, often at a moment's notice, to make an impact for San Jose.
"He shows that whenever he is asked to play, he is the ultimate competitor," said head coach Mark Watson. "He'll fight and scrap and give you everything that he has."
Back on June 28, in the warm-ups ahead of the Quakes huge match against the LA Galaxy at Stanford Stadium, Goodson suffered a setback and had to be pulled from the planned for starting eleven. Without hesitation, Hernandez stepped up, even though he had not earned a single minute of playing time since being injured in the season opener against Real Salt Lake, and played an admirable 90 minutes against the Quakes' California Clasico rival.
It was an emotional time for the New Jersey native as well. His father had recently passed away after a long bought with cancer, representing a low point for the dedicated son, but he also was a newlywed, still basking in his springtime marriage to long-time girlfriend Kaley. And now he was back in the Starting XI.
The Quakes didn't fare too well that evening, losing to the Galaxy 1-0, but Hernandez proved he still had what it took to be a dependable and reliable center back. The ailing Goodson made a comeback of sorts in a July match against DC United, but he was shelved afterwards. It was revealed a few weeks later that Goodson would be out up to two months with a toe injury. The starting spot was now Hernandez' for the foreseeable future.
"He's been tremendous, and he works hard," said goalkeeper Jon Busch. "You know what you are going to get from him every game he's in front of me. He's solid, and he takes pride in his defending. He's jumped in there beside Vic [Bernardez] and done a great job."
Since Goodson last played, Hernandez and Bernardez - the Killer "Zees" - have partnered at center back for three straight games, and the Earthquakes have been unbeaten, with a road draw at New York Red Bulls and home wins against Chicago Fire and Seattle Sounders. The seven points in the trio of games marks the team's best streak of the season.
"I thought Jason was excellent," said Watson following the win against Seattle. "He's had a good run of games now. He's been a big part of the points we have been able to pick up recently."
Hernandez was the best defender on the field in the Earthquakes 1-0 defeat of the Sounders, and the nearly 50,000 in attendance at Levi's Stadium roared with approval at the final whistle. Hernandez, who removed his uniform to reveal a t-shirt tribute to his dad - the message was simply "Joe's son." - soaked it all in before retreating to the locker room.
"All the credit goes to Jason Hernandez," quipped Busch from the adjacent locker. "A blocking machine, Jason Hernandez."
The Earthquakes had just earned their first clean sheet since a 3-0 handling of the Houston Dynamo on May 25, in no small part due to the heroics of Busch in goal, but also because of the all-out effort of Hernandez to keep the ball out of the net.
"Jason has been tremendous, and I don't think he gets enough credit," added Busch. "I always tease him that if he was an indoor player, he would make about a million dollars a year blocking shots. He blocks so many of them."
The unassuming Hernandez, who as a selection in the 2007 MLS Expansion Draft represents the longest serving member of the Quakes, makes considerably less than a million dollars a year, but his value to the team is without question. Most importantly, his blue-collar work ethic, a staple of the Earthquakes, has helped the team turn the corner on what was until recently a string of dismal results.
"The last couple weeks have been good defense performances, and we have been trying to build on that," said Hernandez. "We haven't been able to get too many clean sheets this season, even though we have been able to say we've been getting good defensive performances, so it was really important tonight to get the shutout, and I'm glad we did."
The Quakes came out very aggressively against the first place Sounders, and the defense was especially eager to set the tone for the match.
"Anytime you play against a good team, you've got to be willing to step into fifty-fifty balls and make it difficult on them," said Hernandez. "We did it as a collective, as a group, it wasn't just one guy. We defended well as a team, and if we can continue to do that, we will see results go our way."
After the Earthquakes took the lead through a Yannick Djalo touch of class, it was all hands on deck for the hosts over the second half of the game. Busch, who made one stop in the first half, was forced into eight saves after intermission. Even Chris Wondolowski got into the act, clearing the ball off the line when it appeared a Chad Barrett shot five minutes from regulation was destined to equalize the score.
"In the end, it was a real gritty finish to the game," said Watson. "The guys stuck together and withstood some pressure and held on for a great win."
A win that was good enough, by the end of the weekend's results, to see the Earthquakes out of the bottom spot in the Western Conference table for the first time since they suffered through a four-game losing streak in June and early July. The current three game run has also served to build confidence within the locker room that the postseason remains a realistic target.
"We are playing well and the ball is bouncing our way a little bit," said Hernandez. "I thought we put in good performances before and came out on the wrong end of it. We just need to continue to work hard, and if we continue to do the things we are doing, we will be happy with the results."