Quakes rookie Alashe hones skills against MLS's best

By Ridge Mahoney

Last Sunday it was Kaka. The previous week it was Federico Higuain. After the Toulon Tournament in France, the cast of talented MLS players challenging Fatai Alashe will continue.

This Who’s Who of MLS midfielders is honing the skills and talents of the Quakes rookie, who was the No. 4 overall SuperDraft pick in January and the only domestic-based member of the U.S. under-23 team in Toulon earning significant playing time.

He’s started nine of his 10 appearances for the Quakes after getting nine minutes off the bench in the season opener and is on the 20-player roster named by U.S. coach Andi Herzog to represent his country in France, where it lost to the host country, 3-1, on Wednesday. A groin injury suffered by veteran Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi opened the door for Alashe, who played 85 games in his college career at Michigan State and so far has held his ground in MLS. He also played the full game last month in a 3-0 defeat of Mexico's U-23s and is angling for a spot on the team that will compete in the Concacaf Olympic qualifiers that start Oct. 1.

“He’s drawn some tough assignments this year, from Higuain to [Pedro] Morales in Vancouver and [Javier] Morales at Salt Lake,” said Quakes head coach Dominic Kinnear after a 1-1 tie against Kaka and Orlando City on Sunday “He’s come through it really well. Look at the Seattle game, his first start, Clint Dempsey and all the rest of it. He’s definitely drawing some tough opponents and I think he’s playing well.”

Alashe’s not afraid to dig into tackles and against the Lions played probably his most aggressive game as a pro. He committed five of San Jose’s 14 fouls and received a caution late in the first half for crashing into Brek Shea. Those five fouls upped his season total to 11 and the caution was his third of the season.

A red card to Shea early in the second half altered the game’s dynamics, as did a slight leg injury that caused Quakes playmaker Matias Perez Garcia to drop deeper than normal.

“The only thing they really changed was they had to switch around their formation a little bit but for us we just tried to play the same way,” said Alashe. “We were able to keep the ball a little bit more after that because there’s more space. We had the same situation last week [against Columbus] so we were used to it and knew what to do and try to take advantage of it. It’s unfortunate that we were only able to get one [goal], but we’ll take the tie at this point after coming back from that initial PK.”

Alashe’s great range enables the Quakes at times to play a 4-1-4-1 formation with him screening the back line. Kinnear has also paired him with a central partner and deployed him to hold the middle in a 4-3-3. As Kinnear noted, in less than three months he’s been thrown a formidable cast of opponents and situations. In his nine starts, the Quakes are 5-2-2, including a 2-1 defeat of Chicago in which he scored his first MLS goal, which was also the first Quakes goal at its brand-new home, Avaya Stadium.

“There’s a lot of good players in the league and we’ve played against some great players already this year,” says Alashe. “Kaka is an amazing player, someone you’ve grown up watching, but once the game starts it’s just about playing your game and doing what you need to do to help the team win. You tend not to think about all the other stuff so much and keep your focus on the game.”

The Quakes' central midfield has been in flux since they won the Supporters’ Shield in 2012 with Sam Cronin and Rafael Baca as the linchpins. Baca left after the 2013 season to play in Mexico; Cronin was traded to Colorado a few days after San Jose drafted Alashe, who is dueling for time with Stanford product JJ Koval -- taken with the ninth overall pick in the 2014 SuperDraft -- and Pierazzi.

Khari Stephenson, who played 27 games in 2012, returned to the Quakes last year after one season with Real Salt Lake. An ankle injury has sidelined Pierazzi, who hasn’t played since a March 28 loss to New England.

Two weeks ago, Alashe missed a game against Colorado after taking a knee in the back from Houston midfielder Ricardo Clark, a player often mentioned by Kinnear when discussing Alashe’s attributes. The game against Orlando brought him 90 more minutes of learning.

“He looks composed on the ball, obviously a couple of balls kind of got away from him a little bit,” said Kinnear. “But all in all I think the kid deserves a big thumbs up what he’s done this year and I think he’s going to continue to get better, which is a great thing.”

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