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 werenât going to let Ramiro Corralesâ humility and reticence stand in the way any longer. It was time.
He may not be the clubâs most popular player and his face may not adorn posters and billboards. But being the captain of the leagueâs best team and the only player remaining from Major League Soccerâs inaugural season is worth something. So itâs 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. Itâs the least the Earthquakes could do.
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 heâd 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 MLSâ 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. Heâs especially proud of defenders Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow.
âIâm just so happy for both of them,â Corrales told Sporting News on Monday following practice in Philadelphia. He said it three times.
At first glance, it might seem surprising that the leagueâs 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 trioâs inclusion on All-Star coach Ben Olsenâs roster actually is perfectly appropriate.
âItâs kind of hard to put into words how much Ramiro has taught me,â Morrow said Monday afternoon. âMy rookie year (2010), I would argue that Ramiro was the best left back in the league. Heâs been an amazing teacher ever since.â
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 MLSâ inaugural season. He was made available in the â98 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 â99 and â00. 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 â01 and â03 before spending three years in Norway, where he won an Eliteserien title with Brann in â07.
When the Earthquakes returned to MLS in â08 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.
âIâm from the area. I love the team,â he said. âI want the franchise to be one of the top franchises in the league. I grew up with them, starting in â96, and I want the team to succeed even when Iâm done â" in 5-10 years.â
That last part was accompanied by a wide smile.
Corrales still has plenty to offer. Heâs started 14 of the âQuakes 22 league games this season and has played center back, left back and left midfield. Heâs 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 whoâs strong in defense, composed and responsible with the ball and who works hard to make his teammates better.
Heâs 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 heâs now reveling in San Joseâs 13-5-4 record.
âI knew it was going to take some time once I got back in the league from Norway, starting that team from scratch (in â08) is never easy. But yeah, I never thought it was going to take this long to have a really decent time,â Corrales recalled. âI think the other teams are taking notice now that itâs 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.â
The league is taking notice of Corralesâ role in that resurgence as well.
âHeâs been around forever. He was there before I was there and heâs been through a lot of ups and downs with that team,â said Landon Donovan, the L.A. Galaxy captain who said he âlearned a lotâ playing with Corrales at San Jose in 2001-04.
âNo matter what the coach or the situation, when youâre a guy whoâs always on the field, that says a lot about you,â Donovan said. âHeâs deserving of being the (Earthquakes) captain and heâs deserving of being here (at the All-Star Game).â
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 canât 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 âhates losingâ even the most innocuous of training drills and that âheâll get you sometimesâ during small-sided passing exercises.
âHeâs an unbelievable competitor,â Morrow said.
Corrales laughed when asked if another MLS Cup title would be the cue to retire.
âI love playing. I love playing soccer,â he said. âI love the game and I love competing every day, going to practice, competing with the young guys. Helping them. Itâs been great.â
When he does finally hang them up, heâll 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 clubâs rebirth, Corrales has seen it all. Yet somehow the captain of the leagueâs top team remains, by and large, a relative unknown.
Morrow insisted that his mentor, who still isnât featured in the Earthquakesâ marketing campaigns, was âstill underappreciated.â Perhaps the All-Star bid and the bobblehead will help change that.
In the meantime, the man whoâs been happy leading by example and staying in the background will enjoy the small bit of renown his longevity will afford him this week.
âItâs fun, now that Iâm the only one,â he said. âBack in â96, I was the youngest. Now Iâm the last original. Hopefully I can play another year before I call it quits.â