Perseverance is a trait just about all of us admire – except perhaps when we’re denying a 9-year-old that second ice cream cone -- and it counts a great deal in professional sports, where injuries, coaching changes, economics and plain old pig-headedness can derail a promising playing career.
MLS is a forgiving league, in that mistakes and sloppiness aren’t punished nearly as ruthlessly as they are in the top competitions. Yet it’s also forgiving in the sense that players bounce from team to team fairly regularly, and more than find their feet after stumbling. A different city, a different organization, a different coach, and perhaps a different mindset can make all the difference.
The MLS schedule Saturday and Sunday cranked out some authentic barnburners, matches teeming with incident and seething with intensity. A sold-out Red Bull Arena throbbed as the host team rallied to beat I-95 rival D.C. United, 3-2, after falling behind in the first half-minute; the Quakes piled on more woe for Real Salt Lake with a 2-1 triumph in Rio Tinto Stadium; and Portland’s rowdy Army sent up a deafening din as the final seconds counted down to a 2-1 defeat of Northwest rival Seattle, to cite just three examples.
One of the subplots prior to the Cascadia Cup match was whether former Sounder Mike Fucito, whose occasional heroics had endeared him to Seattle fans, would seize the moment to sting his former team. Instead, one of the heroes turned out to be defender David Horst, a former RSL player who in his fourth season scored his first MLS goal. He might not have started and or perhaps not played at all had the league not handed down a three-game suspension to Hanyer Mosquera two days before the game.
In case you’ve forgotten, Horst was RSL’s first-round draft pick (No. 14 overall) in the 2008 SuperDraft, blessed with size (6-foot-4, 210 pounds) and impressive performances at Old Dominion that drew the interest of head coach Jason Kreis. But he managed just three league matches and few U.S. Open Cup games in three seasons for RSL, which exposed him in the Expansion Draft to be claimed by the Timbers.
He played 16 games (11 starts last year) but his time decreased with the arrival of Mosquera for the 2012 season and the presence of Eric Brunner and Mamadou "Futty" Danso. Before Sunday, he’d played just two games as the Timbers struggled.
Five years after earning the Premier Development League Defender of the Year award playing for Hampton Roads Piranhas (14-0-2 that season), came opportunity. After dinging the crossbar in the 11th minute, he got his head to a Franck Songo’ocorner kick in the 25th minute and buried it. He and Portland dug in to earn the Timbers’ first MLS victory against their fiercest rival.
“I’ll never forget it,” Horst told mlssoccer.com. “It’s got to be one of the great moments of my life.”
Horst had to take a back seat to Brandon Barklage, scorer of two goals for the Red Bulls against D.C. United, which took him in the third round of the 2009 SuperDraft and after his second season declined the option on a third. Invited as a trialist, he made the team, but ran into the same situation again at the end of 2011, having played just 11 games in those three seasons.
He went unclaimed in the Re-Entry Draft but negotiated a deal with New York, and seized an opportunity at right back when Jan Gunnar Solliwas moved to midfield. On Sunday, he played his 11th game for the Red Bulls -- matching his three years of play with United -- and like Horst, scored his first MLS goal. Then he scored again, just before halftime, with an amazing volley from a Joel Lindpere corner kick to give the Red Bulls a 2-1 lead.
A vital block of a Maicon Santos shot in the second half helped New York hold onto a 3-2 lead and a victory that moved it alongside D.C. United atop the Eastern Conference. And, refreshingly, he admitted that the idea of payback certainly fired him up. In an interview with NBCSN broadcaster Arlo White, he admitted crying when United let him go.
“This is the date that I definitely circled on the calendar,” Barklage toldmlssoccer.com. “I knew I was just going to go out there and give it 110 percent and whatever happened, happened. Thankfully, I got the two goals against an ex-team. It feels unbelievable.”
The Quakes wrested away the Western Conference lead from RSL thanks in part to few reclamation projects, forwards Chris Wondolowski and Alan Gordon, and defender Jason Hernandez. Wondo scored winning goal after Gordon has broken a 0-0 tie in the 75th minute, and Hernandez cleared an Alvaro Saborioheader from under the crossbar after thwarting Will Johnson by blocking his attempt to score into an open goal.
Wondo’s journey from Dynamo backup to Quakes’ talisman is well-documented, and Gordon -- whose late-game heroics have netted him five goals despite just one start -- is on his fourth team after stints in Toronto and with both L.A. teams.
Not so well known is Hernandez, a New York native termed “our best defender, hands-down” by Coach Frank Yallop since joining the reconstituted team in 2008. He played three games as a Supplemental Draft pick by the MetroStars, who traded him to Chivas USA so they could take Marvell Wynne with the top pick in the 2006 SuperDraft.
After 50 games in two seasons for Chivas USA, it left Hernandez exposed in the Expansion Draft that Yallop used to form the re-born Quakes for the 2008 season. Since then, despite a run of injuries, Hernandez has played 114 league and playoff games.
“He’s been great for us,” said Yallop, “a great leader and a very good defender, who I think doesn’t get enough attention. He does the little things that maybe you don’t notice, but he also gets after it when he needs to win the ball. He’s had some injuries, which is unfortunate, and I do know we’re a lot better when he’s in the lineup.”
Failure and disappointment hasn’t deterred these players and dozens more like them from rising up among the big names and in glamor games to claim victory.