Thursday, September 11, 2008

Quakes' Huckerby shaking things up during MLS playoff push

San Jose Earthquakes v CD Chivas USA

I’ll never profess to be a soccer expert. I grew up before the youth soccer explosion hit the U.S., at a time when an occasional Cosmos game on TV was the extent of most Americans' exposure to the sport. Since then I’ve grown to enjoy and appreciate the World Cup, especially when the U.S. has a team in the fight, and the game, in general.

But Pele, I’m not.

That said, even I -- Mr. Baseball, Basketball, Football, Hockey, Tennis and Golf – could tell that midfielder Darren Huckerby absolutely dominated the action Saturday night when the surging San Jose Earthquakes beat D.C. United 2-1.

That’s how much he stood out at Buck Shaw Stadium.

Huckerby was seemingly everywhere at once, a human dynamo playing the game at a different speed and level than the opposition. He scored only one goal to go with an assist. But if his shot had been on target, he could easily have scored three or even four times.

It’s not supposed to be that easy to get behind an opposing defense, is it? How was Huckerby able to do it?

“I’m a good player,” Huckerby said with a laugh after Saturday night’s game. “We’ve worked on certain things and we’ve got good movement and we’re doing OK.”

Almost everything works when you have a player with Huckerby’s skill set, attacking style and resume: he’s a former English soccer star who played for Norwich City and turned down an offer to play in the Premier League because, in part, he’d always wanted to come to the U.S. So far I said his visit to America has gone well.

The Earthquakes signed Huckerby on July 14 after acquiring his rights from Toronto FC. Landing him was just part the team’s July makeover that has sparked its dormant offense and ignited its playoff run. They also signed midfielder Francisco Lima, acquired forward Scott Sealy from Kansas City and traded with FC Dallas for forward Arturo Alvarez.

The Quakes have won four straight home games and own an eight-game unbeaten streak. They’ve gone from the Western Conference cellar to smack in the middle of the MLS playoff race approaching Saturday’s night’s collision with the conference-leading and reigning MLS Cup champion Houston Dynamo – the franchise that used to call San Jose home -- at Buck Shaw.

Huckerby has led the charge. In his seven games, he’s had a role in eight of the team’s 12 goals. He’s scored four times and added four assists.

“I’m enjoying it,” Huckerby said after the victory. “This is a great bunch of lads. At the minute, things are going well. We just want to keep it going.”

A questioner asked Huckerby if he was surprised how easy MLS has been for him.

“It’s not easy,” Huckerby countered. “We’re working hard. The team’s working hard and the lads are putting it on the line every game. We’re attacking more as a team. We’re more of a unit now. We are a team. There’s no one or two individuals. We’re a team.”

True. But Huckerby is a team leader when it comes to making sure the Quakes keep attacking and scoring. San Jose scored 11 goals in its first 16 games. In their past seven games with Huckerby, the Quakes have scored 12 goals.

Huckerby acknowledged that he should have added even more goals to his team’s total against United.

“It’s about winning,” Huckerby said. “It would have been worse if we hadn’t won the games. I had a lot of chances, but we’re creating chances.”

When they face Houston in back-to-back, home-and-away games, the Earthquakes won’t be able to waste those scoring chances, goalkeeper Joe Cannon warned. He was happy that the Earthquakes earned three points Saturday, but he was upset that they let the shutout get away and didn’t bury D.C. United when they had multiple chances.

“I tell you what,” Cannon said. “If we come out like we did tonight against a Houston team that’s on all cylinders, it’s not going to be pretty. I think this week we’re all going to have to get back to our blue-collar ways, put in a little bit more time at the office. … You saw the game tonight. Hucks, he probably could have had more goals tonight than he’s had in his entire career here.

“It was that kind of night, though. Thankfully we didn’t miss chances and (have) it come back to haunt us. Hopefully he’s just saving some for the next series against Houston.”

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