Unlike many foreign players who've come to America and promised much but delivered little, Darren Huckerby gave everything: his zealous commitment to team, his unquenchable daring
to scorch opponents, his indomitable spirit, his puckish humor, and ultimately, his health.
A lingering hip problem slowed and stilted his play this season, robbing the Quakes and their fans of exhilarating dribbles and scything runs that highlighted the 2008 expansion season when little else did. This year, Hucks - when he finally got on the field - wasn't anything like that whirling, driving, force on the right flank who personified what a British winger is supposed to be.
News that came this week of his retirement brings frustration along with disappointment, since 2009 should have been a lavish banquet of Huckerby dribbles and runs and shots and crosses to be admired and savored. Instead there's a emptiness, as if the kitchen suddenly closed once the appetizers had been served.
"I'm a winger," he said shortly after lighting up the league for the first time last year. "I get the ball and go at people, try to get in behind the defense and get a shot for myself or someone else. It's not much more complicated than that, really."
It's not been a great summer for wide players. The Quakes and Rapids, which meet Friday in San Jose and Wednesday in Commerce City, Colo., once featured three of the league's best in that regard: Terry Cooke and Colin Clark of Colorado, and Huckerby. None will be in action. Cooke was waived last month, Clark is out for the season with an injury, and now Huckerby is out presumably forever.
As he crept into his mid-30s, his pace had waned a bit and so did his defensive work, but his churning legs and powerful shoulders carried him past and through tacklers, and if this run didn't produce a goal, he came back just as hard and determined on the next one, and the next one, and the one after that.
More than a decade of play in England schooled him in the winger's finer points, those of positioning and timing and use of space bounded by a sideline and often isolated against an outside back.
He played the position much differently than did Cooke, a former Manchester United teammate of
David Beckham and in his own regard a very good crosser who usually stayed wide. Huckerby might do that, but more often he arrowed furiously toward the near post in search of the
right angle and moment to serve a ball or crack it at goal. Nothing fancy, but it set the place a'buzzing, and endeared him to the fans.
The growing popularity of soccer in America has produced a verbal and virtual blizzard of analysis and opinion and commentary about tactics and formations and systems, and obscured by all the fluttery clutter is how often a result is determined by mano-a-mano battles at critical moments, and in the case of Huckerby, whether one or two or more challengers were enough to take him out of the play, legally or otherwise.
Huckerby brought clarity and resolution to a sometimes confounding game. "I'm going to get the ball and blow you out of your boots," his body language and reputation told the opposition. "Stop me if you can."
He signed an 18-month contract when he arrived, and his wife and children are back in England, so it's likely he'd have left the league anyway when his deal expired. The cruelty of the game has risen again: He tortured his heart and bone and tissue to excel at his craft, yet he's been ushered out the door prematurely by the same body that served him so well.
I won't soon forget and will forever miss the images of him shuffling with the ball at this feet, measuring distances and angles and spaces, then blazing to the goal line or scything inside, leaning and straining against feet and forearms and elbows slamming into him.
In this arena of combat, Huckerby was a warrior, and in his brief MLS career he confirmed the glimpses of him I'd seen playing for Coventry, Leeds United, Manchester City and Norwich. A first-class pain in the ass for any team trying to shut him down who scored 106 English League goals and once commanded a transfer fee of 4 million pounds (nearly $6 million at the time).
Unless there's some miraculous turnaround, he'll confine his runs to the training field as a coach, perhaps for his beloved Norwich, and to the backyard as a dad. For the Quakes, and MLS, a bit of the thrill is gone.