By Scott French in San Jose, Calif.
Jeff Agoos isnÆt about to trumpet his importance to the remarkable turnaround the San Jose Earthquakes have enjoyed in 2001, and to be truthful, he isnÆt the only reason that what has been MLSÆs feeblest aggregation is suddenly one of its strongest.
Yes, his performance has been remarkable, as good as or better than any MLS defensive playerÆs through the first two-thirds of the season. As the EarthquakesÆ on-field general ù and as its stabilizing force in the back ù he seems unquestionably the most vital piece to the puzzle Frank Yallop has been assembling since his hiring as coach in early February.
The Quakes, their ranks a blend of young, hungry holdovers and deft pick-ups, are a title contender ù unfathomable in previous years ù battling Miami and Chicago for MLSÆs best record.
DonÆt suggest Agoos is the difference.
ôI donÆt want to think itÆs all me,ö he says. ôWeÆve got a very good team. IÆd say we have 18-20 all-stars on our team.ö
ThatÆs pushing things, but thereÆs something to it. The arrivals of Manny Lagos (from Tampa Bay), Landon Donovan (Bayer LeverkusenÆs reserves), Dwayne DeRosario (Richmond Kickers), Zak Ibsen (Los Angeles Galaxy) and Ronnie Ekelund (Walsall); the return of inspirational defender Troy Dayak; the improved health (and form) of Ronald Cerritos and Wade Barrett; the move to the middle by the maturing Richard Mulrooney; superb play by goalkeeper Joe Cannon ù all have played significant roles in the QuakesÆ change of fortune.
It is the 33-year-old Agoos, however, who is being mentioned as an MVP contender, something of which Yallop acclaims he is ôworthy.ö His teammates concur.
ôThereÆs a lot of adjectives to describe him,ö Lagos offers, ôbecause he is that good.ö
That should been apparent to anyone whoÆs been watching the U.S. national team the past, oh, two and a half years. Once derided as mistake-prone, Agoos has blossomed into the countryÆs most reliable defender.
FIRST TARGET. Yallop targeted Agoos as soon as he took the QuakesÆ reigns, three days before the SuperDraft, and dealt forward Abdul Thompson Conteh and a pair of first-round draft choices to D.C. United for the defender within hours of taking charge.
ôJeff was exactly the kind of guy I wanted to get,ö says Yallop, who was Thomas RongenÆs assistant at D.C. in 2000. ôItÆs just his leadership, his quality of play.ö
Yallop was looking to concoct strong chemistry and instill a winning attitude, something previous San Jose squads had lacked, and AgoosÆ even-keeled personality, work ethic ù and those championship rings won at D.C. ù were critical to the potion.
Quakes assistant coach Dominic Kinnear says the standard his former U.S. teammate sets makes it hard for anybody else to slack off.
ôIt helps because weÆve got a fairly young group in here,ö Kinnear says. ôItÆs follow the leader here, and your leaderÆs a good guy as well as a good player.ö
Dayak says his partner in the middle is MLSÆs best defender.
ôI donÆt see anyone else who has the ability to close down the best forwards in the league,ö he says.
Dayak calls Agoos the QuakesÆ quarterback in the back.
ôHe always knows in which direction heÆs going to go with the ball when he wins it off a tackle or intercepts a pass,ö Dayak adds. ôIt seems he knows where [teammates] are better than most anyone in the league.ö
COMFORTABLE FIT. Agoos says the Quakes have been a comfortable fit: ôThe guys have been great, the organization is one of the better organizations in the league,ö and he loves the Bay Area.
He wasnÆt so happy when he first heard he was Bay Area-bound. Reporters quizzed him about it after the national team dropped a 1-0 friendly to Colombia Feb. 3 at the Orange Bowl. He was dumbfounded.
Back at the hotel, afterwards, Rongen and Kevin Payne ù D.C.Æs president and GM ù confirmed it was true.
It was a salary-cap move, another in a series of such maneuvers that has halted a D.C. dynasty that foes couldnÆt stop. Also gone were Carlos Llamosa, to Miami, and Richie Williams, to the MetroStars.
ôWe had to make some tough choices,ö Rongen says. ôThe nature of the beast for D.C. [is] because of the success, weÆve had to move players every year.ö
Agoos, who saw Raul Diaz Arce, John Harkes and Roy Lassiter go before him, has no problem with this.
ôI was told I probably wasnÆt going to be traded, but things change, and I understand that,ö he says. ôWhat I didnÆt understand and didnÆt appreciate was how it was handled. I found out from reporters.ö
Agoos still canÆt believe that D.C. United couldnÆt have found a way to tell him first.
ôI think all the time I was there and all I helped that team accomplish would have been worth something, been worth more consideration,ö he says, ôbut I guess not.ö
Rongen can appreciate AgoosÆ unhappiness.
ôWe would have liked it to have been handled a little bit differently,ö insists Rongen, who says news of the trade leaked out. ôBut it was completely out of our control. I think Jeff knows that.ö
A NEW START. Agoos was angry and bitter about it for awhile.
ôCertainly I miss my friends and the people I was very close to in D.C.,ö he says. ôIn a sense, I miss D.C. United because of all of the tradition and success we had. But I canÆt say enough about how happy I am with this change.ö
He loves the Bay Area weather, the proximity to the beaches and mountains ù and to brother Brad, an assistant menÆs soccer coach at the University of California ù but canÆt stomach the exorbitant housing market. HeÆs renting Vincent DamphousseÆs house in Los Gatos while the San Jose SharksÆ star is home in Montreal for the NHL offseason, an arrangement brokered by former D.C. and San Jose midfielder Shawn Medved, DamphousseÆs next-door neighbor.
On the field, he says, the move to San Jose ôhas certainly worked out for me ù itÆs certainly helped my career.ö
Agoos relishes being the man in the middle ù he was often pushed to the wing in D.C., which usually teamed Llamosa and Eddie Pope in central defense ù and wearing the captainÆs armband.
As for MVP talk, donÆt bother. Agoos is ôflatteredö by kind words but says he ôjust tries to give as much as I can to help my team win.ö
OthersÆ opinions are more salient.
ôWhat youÆve got to look at is how the team has done without Goose,ö Cannon says.
Agoos missed four of the first 18 games, two while on national team duty, two while nursing an ailing back. The Quakes, 9-1-4 (and unbeaten since mid-April) with their captain in lineup, won just once without him.
Cannon, who has emerged as one of MLSÆs top keepers, credits Agoos for the QuakesÆ remarkable turnaround.
ôWe really struggled last year,ö Cannon says. ôWe were really not a good team. I value Goose ù if the voting were today, IÆd vote for him.ö