Huckerby addition transforms the Earthquakes
SAN JOSE -- It's a picture-perfect day at the San Jose Earthquakes' training facility at Santa Clara University, one that the city's Chamber of Commerce no doubt loves. The sun is shining, and the heat wave that gripped the area for much of August has finally eased.
But for Darren Huckerby, there is one thing he wishes he could change -- the color of his jersey. You see, for the last five years in England, Huckerby wore the yellow of his beloved Norwich City, and the training gear on this day sees him sporting dark blue, which just so happens to be the same color as Ipswich Town, the Canaries' archrivals.
It's a point that manager Frank Yallop, who spent the vast majority of his career with Ipswich, is keen to remind his charge. Fortunately for Huckerby, the Quakes' home jerseys are black, sparing him the indignity of offending his legion of fans on the other side of the Atlantic.
"I've gotten a bit of stick from back home for wearing blue boots," Huckerby said. "I just tell them it goes with the uniform."
At the moment, that's about the only complaint from both player and club, as the Englishman has helped salvage the Quakes' season. When he arrived in July, scoring opportunities were about as abundant as tree huggers at the Republican National Convention, and there was a real chance that the Quakes would shatter Toronto's single-season record for offensive futility.
But in the eight games Huckerby has played on the left side of midfield, the Quakes have scored 13 goals, after netting just 11 times in their first 16 matches. And in the process, he has bucked all of the stereotypes that follow older, foreign players, namely that they only come to MLS to go through the motions and collect one last paycheck. Not only has Huckerby tallied four goals and four assists during his short time in the South Bay; his marauding runs down the left wing have also done plenty to unbalance defenses.
"When you bring someone in, you hope they do well," said Yallop. "But Huckerby has probably exceeded what I thought he would be doing."
That's not to say the Quakes' surge is down to Huckerby alone. His arrival also coincided with those of forwards Scott Sealy and Arturo Alvarez, as well as holding midfielder Francisco Lima. And it is this extreme attacking makeover that is responsible for the Quakes' nine-game unbeaten streak, one that has propelled them up the Western Conference table.
That said, it's the way Huckerby attacks that catches the eye, in that he never met a defender he didn't want to take on.
"[Huckerby] forces defenders to make choices, uncomfortable choices," said San Jose goalkeeper Joe Cannon. "Do I slide tackle? Do I open up? Do I let him go wide? He has the ability to go both ways on defenders, and with his speed, his first step, he has the ability to beat almost anyone in this league."
Yallop added, "I don't think Huckerby knows the word 'possession.' Yeah, he realizes late in games that he's got to try and keep the ball and see the game out, but up until the 85th minute, he's going straight at you. It's great."
Huckerby's midseason rescue of the Quakes makes him this year's Cuauhtemoc Blanco, minus the hair-trigger temper, yet his success is still surprising on a variety of levels. Unlike his compatriot, Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder David Beckham, Huckerby never appeared in an England "A" international, and he spent a considerable portion of his career outside England's top flight. Yet scarcely two months into his American adventure, Huckerby appears to be a perfect fit for MLS.
"I think Huckerby's English style of just going at players suits this league," said Cannon. "He's very aggressive, very North and South, and I think a lot of players come here from other backgrounds and try to play East-West, touching the ball around. It's not that type of league. It's so fast.
"And he's very passionate about winning. I don't think you can say that about a lot of other foreigners who come here."
Just as surprising is that Huckerby ended up in San Jose at all. Growing up in the Clifton area of Nottingham, Huckerby was the stereotypical English kid who always had a ball at his feet.
"I had a park that was right behind my house," Huckerby said. "I could actually climb over my fence and be on the park. I was kind of lucky that I had grass behind me. My dad reckons he knew I had talent from the beginning, but you don't know until you're older how things are going to turn out."
By 1993, Huckerby had an idea where he was headed, signing with Lincoln City in the fourth tier of English soccer. He later went on to play in the English Premier League for such clubs as Coventry City and Leeds United. By 2003, he was on the books of Manchester City and, with playing time scarce, was loaned out to Norwich. The rapport he struck up with the Canaries' fans was immediate, and after making the move permanent, he helped Norwich gain promotion to the EPL for the 2004-05 season.
"It sounds stupid, but after one or two games there, I knew it was the place where I wanted to finish playing football," said Huckerby. "From day one, the fans took to me straight away. I'm an exciting player, and I think they bought into it."
The love affair continued even after the Canaries were relegated the following season, and with his place in the club's lore secure, Huckerby vowed to never play for another English team, lest he be obliged to play against Norwich.
The business side of the game would end up preventing Huckerby from living out his dream. After failing to win promotion last season, Norwich manager Glenn Roeder was intent on remaking the team, and with Huckerby's contract winding down, he cast aside his resident hero.
Intent on fulfilling his promise, Huckerby looked to MLS. Toronto FC was first to file a discovery claim on Huckerby, giving them dibs. But when San Jose also showed interest, Huckerby opted to throw his lot in with the Quakes, who sent some allocation money to TFC in exchange for his rights. Toronto's unforgiving artificial surface was certainly a factor in Huckerby's decision, but the Englishman indicated that Yallop's track record of success also played a part.
"Coming to a foreign country, I don't really know anybody, and it's nice to know somebody who is a winner," said Huckerby of Yallop. "It's nice to know somebody who [played in England] as well, so he knows what you're going through.
"Toronto is a great place, with great facilities, but I just felt at home here straight away. San Jose is a little bit like Norwich, in that it's kind of quiet, and it's a nice place to live. But it wasn't one thing. It was a bunch of things that added up."
One thing that doesn't appear to add up is Huckerby's salary. While his total yearly compensation of $355,000 puts him just outside the top 10 among MLS players, he could have made four times that much had he stayed in Europe. Yet Huckerby has made a habit of placing other concerns over money.
"Now it's not about the money, but it's easy for me to say that now that I've got a little bit of money behind me," said Huckerby. "Obviously I've got to earn a living, but I've made choices over the last five or six years that a lot of people wouldn't have made. I've gone away from the money and more for the enjoyment."
That attitude, along with his electric style, has endeared Huckerby to the San Jose fans, who are now facing the real possibility of seeing their expansion side make the playoffs. Yet as fortunate as they feel to be able to witness Huckerby's talent, he feels even luckier.
Huckerby added, "To be a player who started off playing in the Third Division, to playing here in California, it's kind of amazing."
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org