Ever since the San Jose Earthquakes traded MLS All-Star right back Steven Beitashour to the Vancouver Whitecaps just prior to the 2014 season, the team has struggled to fill the boots of the departed Bay Area native. In fact, a revolving door of replacements at right back was a big reason the Quakes struggled last season and finished in last place in the Western Conference.
Brandon Barklage, formerly of the New York Red Bulls, was given the opportunity to start, but he struggled at times and was benched midway through the season. He and the Earthquakes mutually agreed to part ways earlier this week after it was clear he would not be called on to be a contributor in 2015. Uruguayan defender Pablo Pintos came aboard late last season, but he failed to live up to his promise, and the Quakes quietly released him last month. Midfielder Cordell Cato and center back Ty Harden filled in at times last season, but neither player was a long-term solution.
Enter Marvell Wynne.
As one of two key selections, along with midfielder Sanna Nyassi, in the MLS Re-Entry Draft last December, Wynne has quickly made the right back position his own. Last with the Colorado Rapids, whom with he won an MLS Cup championship in 2010, Wynne was selected by the Earthquakes in an effort to increase team speed, especially among the defense. The 28-year-old former U.S. international was known for covering a tremendous amount of ground during games, and he hasn't disappointed in that regard to start the 2015 season.
Nyassi, who did not generate as much buzz with his selection by the Quakes as did Wynne, is having an even bigger impact on the team since arriving from the Chicago Fire. Just 26 years old, the Gambian born seven-year MLS veteran was by most accounts the best player in San Jose's preseason training camp. He and Wynne took naturally to each other, and in two games to start the MLS season have put opposing teams on notice.
"Yeah, they've been good," said head coach Dominic Kinnear. "They've both had really good preseasons, and most of the time in the preseason they've played together, which really helped build their understanding. It wasn't by design, but it was the way it worked out. They are a strong point for us."
Nyassi, as was Wynne, was selected in the Re-Entry draft to improve the overall level of speed on the roster. His best seasons were in 2011 and 2012 -- the first as a teammate with Wynne in Colorado -- when he totaled 11 goals and 8 assists. After a pair of unproductive seasons with the Montreal Impact and a less than stellar spell with Chicago, Nyassi was let go in the offseason. His reunion with Wynne seems to have raised his spirits as well as his game.
"So far we are feeling pretty good," said Wynne, the Penn to Nyassi's Teller in the tandem. "He and I know each other's abilities. I know how he likes to play when the ball is at his feet, and I know when he wants to run off the ball. When in doubt, when you pass the ball, you are always supposed to move. So when I have the ball, I make sure to give him a good angle so I am at least an option. If he passes it to me or not, it at least gives the defender something to think about."
The interplay between the two has as its main feature a relatively large number of overlapping runs, as one jets into the attacking half and the other tracks back to defend. On the Earthquakes first goal against the Seattle Sounders last Saturday, the duo was crucial in initiating the play that led to Chris Wondolowski's equalizer.
"Their play for the first goal featured some good interchanging play," said Kinnear. "They provide a ton of pace over there that if there is a mistake, they have the speed to make up for it. They know how to talk during the game."
A give-and-go between Wynne and Nyassi along the right sideline allowed Wynne to push the ball into space behind the Sounders defense, and his pace allowed him to catch up to it and deliver a cross into the penalty area. In real time, it did not look like Wynne had any chance to get to his touch into space, but his trademark speed quelled any thoughts he wouldn't get to it.
"I thought ball first, then I took a quick glance and I went for it," said Wynne of the moments before Wondo's equalizer. "Obviously the ball was right on the line, but luckily the pass went right over [Brad] Evans' head, dropped to Wondo, and I'll bet you on any day of the week that he is going to make it from there."
It was Wondolowski's 94th career MLS goal and his 8th against the Seattle Sounders -- he would add one more to each list with a brilliant individual effort at the start of the second half -- and proved once again that if the Earthquakes star striker is given good enough service, he will more often than not find the back of the net.
"He did a great job of taking a quick peek up and serving it in," said Wondolowski. "He picked me out so it was one of those where you can't really yell where you are going. He did a great job of picking me out there."
After the ball struck the back of the net, Wondolowski turned and made a bee-line to Wynne to celebrate his first goal of the season. The lead-up and the finish on the goal were something that was sorely lacking for the Earthquakes last year, and the thought of hearing more of "Wynne to Wondo" in 2015 was music to the ears of the Quakes all-time leading goal scorer.
"Yeah, hopefully," said Wondolowski with a smile.
Wynne, who until this season was on the receiving end of Wondolowski's runs into the box, appreciated the celebration and was quick to compliment the play of the Earthquakes forward.
"It's great to be his teammate," said Wynne. "I like him as a person, so I'm glad to be his teammate and I'm glad to be his friend. He's a cool guy. And playing with him, he is someone you can pass the ball to and he gives you a lot of confidence that he won't just pass the ball away. He's very smart with it and if it's in the box, anywhere near him, you're almost already running back to the center circle to celebrate."
Nyassi's contribution on the goal was not as obvious as Wynne, but without the Gambian's move into space and subsequent drawing of Seattle defenders with him, Wynne doesn't have as much space in which to exploit in the attacking third.
"Sanna's done a great job as well," said Wondolowski. "He and Marvell really stretch the defense with their speed and their playing ability. They've been able to possess it and pass it, so that is something that is going to continue to help our team, especially me."
Have the Earthquakes finally found the right replacement for Beitashour, a fan favorite in his four years in San Jose? Wynne has certainly made a very strong first impression, and with more games like the one he had against Seattle, he may be just the man to do it.