Monday, July 23, 2012

San Jose Earthquakes defender Ramiro Corrales finally gets his due -

Published Monday, Jul 23, 2012 at 10:26 pm EDT Last updated 27 minutes and 9 seconds ago

PHILADELPHIA â€" After so many years, San Jose Earthquakes staffers weren’t going to let Ramiro Corrales’ humility and reticence stand in the way any longer. It was time.

He may not be the club’s most popular player and his face may not adorn posters and billboards. But being the captain of the league’s best team and the only player remaining from Major League Soccer’s inaugural season is worth something. So it’s been decided â€" at some point later this year, fans will receive a Corrales bobblehead when they pass through the gates at Buck Shaw Stadium. It’s the least the Earthquakes could do.

The San Jose Earthquakes' Ramiro Corrales, a 35-year-old defender, is going to participate in his first MLS All-Star Game this season. (AP Photo)

MLS commissioner Don Garber had similar instincts. Corrales, a native of Salinas, Calif., has won two MLS Cup titles, played in more than 300 regular season and playoff games and represented his country both at the Olympics and at the senior level. But he’d never been an All-Star. Until this year, when Garber used one of his two selections to ensure that the 35-year-old defender/midfielder would take an overdue turn in the spotlight when MLS’ best meets European champion Chelsea on Wednesday night (8:30 PM ET, ESPN2).

Naturally, Corrales seems far more pleased that there are three fellow Earthquakes joining him on the All-Star team. He’s especially proud of defenders Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow.

“I’m just so happy for both of them,” Corrales told Sporting News on Monday following practice in Philadelphia. He said it three times.

At first glance, it might seem surprising that the league’s highest scoring team by some distance produced only one offensive All-Star (Chris Wondolowski). But this is no flashy first-place outfit. San Jose is built on grit, guile and a rock-solid, team-first ethos that starts in the back. And it starts with Corrales, who is the ultimate leader by example. The defensive trio’s inclusion on All-Star coach Ben Olsen’s roster actually is perfectly appropriate.

“It’s kind of hard to put into words how much Ramiro has taught me,” Morrow said Monday afternoon. “My rookie year (2010), I would argue that Ramiro was the best left back in the league. He’s been an amazing teacher ever since.”

On April 26, 1996, Ramiro Corrales played his first game for San Jose. At 19, the ninth-round draft pick would be the youngest player to take the field during MLS’ inaugural season. He was made available in the ’98 expansion draft, played one game for the now-defunct Miami Fusion then moved on to the New York Red Bulls, where he was a regular in ’99 and ’00. That summer he was a member of the U.S. Under-23 team that finished fourth at the Sydney Olympics.

The following year, Corrales returned to his hometown club. He helped the Earthquakes win championships in ’01 and ’03 before spending three years in Norway, where he won an Eliteserien title with Brann in ’07.

When the Earthquakes returned to MLS in ’08 after a two-year hiatus, Corrales returned as well. His roots remain in Salinas, a largely Latino community in Monterey County about 60 miles south of San Jose. He still lives there and commutes every day to and from practices and games.

“I’m from the area. I love the team,” he said. “I want the franchise to be one of the top franchises in the league. I grew up with them, starting in ’96, and I want the team to succeed even when I’m done â€" in 5-10 years.”

That last part was accompanied by a wide smile.

Corrales still has plenty to offer. He’s started 14 of the ‘Quakes 22 league games this season and has played center back, left back and left midfield. He’s played a critical role in helping Morrow, a reserve last season, blossom into an All-Star and now has settled into a spot on the left wing in front of the 24-year-old from Notre Dame. Corrales has five assists this season, his highest total in a decade, and remains a reliable contributor who’s strong in defense, composed and responsible with the ball and who works hard to make his teammates better.

He’s also playing for a winner for the first time in a while. Corrales stuck it out during the lean years following his return to San Jose, when the Earthquakes never finished higher than sixth in the Western Conference. He said his attachment to the club and his love for the game kept him coming back for more, and he’s now reveling in San Jose’s 13-5-4 record.

“I knew it was going to take some time once I got back in the league from Norway, starting that team from scratch (in ’08) is never easy. But yeah, I never thought it was going to take this long to have a really decent time,” Corrales recalled. “I think the other teams are taking notice now that it’s not a fluke. We have a good team, a bunch of good guys on the team working hard. We believe in each other and everything is clicking right now.”

The league is taking notice of Corrales’ role in that resurgence as well.

“He’s been around forever. He was there before I was there and he’s been through a lot of ups and downs with that team,” said Landon Donovan, the L.A. Galaxy captain who said he “learned a lot” playing with Corrales at San Jose in 2001-04.

“No matter what the coach or the situation, when you’re a guy who’s always on the field, that says a lot about you,” Donovan said. “He’s deserving of being the (Earthquakes) captain and he’s deserving of being here (at the All-Star Game).”

Corrales knows the clock is ticking. He now works with San Jose coach Frank Yallop to manage his minutes and occasionally will take a day or two off. That can’t be easy for a player known for milking every minute of practice and often staying late to work on crossing, shooting or other skills, despite his 90-minute drive home.

Morrow said Corrales still “hates losing” even the most innocuous of training drills and that “he’ll get you sometimes” during small-sided passing exercises.

“He’s an unbelievable competitor,” Morrow said.

Corrales laughed when asked if another MLS Cup title would be the cue to retire.

“I love playing. I love playing soccer,” he said. “I love the game and I love competing every day, going to practice, competing with the young guys. Helping them. It’s been great.”

When he does finally hang them up, he’ll have some great stories to tell. From those early days at Spartan Stadium in those garish, multicolored San Jose Clash jerseys, to the two titles and then the club’s rebirth, Corrales has seen it all. Yet somehow the captain of the league’s top team remains, by and large, a relative unknown.

Morrow insisted that his mentor, who still isn’t featured in the Earthquakes’ marketing campaigns, was “still underappreciated.” Perhaps the All-Star bid and the bobblehead will help change that.

In the meantime, the man who’s been happy leading by example and staying in the background will enjoy the small bit of renown his longevity will afford him this week.

“It’s fun, now that I’m the only one,” he said. “Back in ’96, I was the youngest. Now I’m the last original. Hopefully I can play another year before I call it quits.”

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