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Follow the leader

Agoos helps lead turnaround in San Jose

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Posted: Tuesday July 31, 2001 5:02 PM
  Jeff Agoos Jeff Agoos was the top All-Star vote-getter in MLS this year. Tom Hauck/Allsport

By Scott French, Soccer America

Jeff Agoos wasn't too happy when he got the news he was traded from three-time MLS champion D.C. United to feeble San Jose, but his inspired play has helped make the Quakes one of MLS's top teams.

Jeff Agoos isn't about to trumpet his importance to the remarkable turnaround the San Jose Earthquakes have enjoyed in 2001, and to be truthful, he isn't the only reason that what has been MLS's feeblest aggregation is suddenly one of its strongest.

Yes, his performance has been remarkable, as good as or better than any MLS defensive player's through the first two-thirds of the season. As the Earthquakes' on-field general -- and as its stabilizing force in the back -- he seems unquestionably the most vital piece to the puzzle Frank Yallop has been assembling since his hiring as coach in early February.

The Quakes, their ranks a blend of young, hungry holdovers and deft pick-ups, are a title contender -- unfathomable in previous years -- battling Miami and Chicago for MLS's best record.

Don't suggest Agoos is the difference.

"I don't want to think it's all me," he says. "We've got a very good team. I'd say we have 18-20 All-Stars on our team."

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  • That's pushing things, but there's something to it. The arrivals of Manny Lagos (from Tampa Bay), Landon Donovan (Bayer Leverkusen's reserves), Dwayne DeRosario (Richmond Kickers), Zak Ibsen (Los Angeles Galaxy) and Ronnie Ekelund (Walsall); the return of inspirational defender Troy Dayak; the improved health (and form) of Ronald Cerritos and Wade Barrett; the move to the middle by the maturing Richard Mulrooney; superb play by goalkeeper Joe Cannon -- all have played significant roles in the Quakes' change of fortune.

    It is the 33-year-old Agoos, however, who is being mentioned as an MVP contender, something of which Yallop acclaims he is "worthy." His teammates concur.

    "There's a lot of adjectives to describe him," Lagos offers, "because he is that good."

    That should been apparent to anyone who's been watching the U.S. national team the past, oh, two and a half years. Once derided as mistake-prone, Agoos has blossomed into the country's most reliable defender.

    FIRST TARGET. Yallop targeted Agoos as soon as he took the Quakes' reigns, three days before the SuperDraft, and dealt forward Abdul Thompson Conteh and a pair of first-round draft choices to D.C. United for the defender within hours of taking charge.

    "Jeff was exactly the kind of guy I wanted to get," says Yallop, who was Thomas Rongen's assistant at D.C. in 2000. "It's just his leadership, his quality of play."

    Yallop was looking to concoct strong chemistry and instill a winning attitude, something previous San Jose squads had lacked, and Agoos' even-keeled personality, work ethic -- and those championship rings won at D.C. -- were critical to the potion.

    Quakes assistant coach Dominic Kinnear says the standard his former U.S. teammate sets makes it hard for anybody else to slack off.

    "It helps because we've got a fairly young group in here," Kinnear says. "It's follow the leader here, and your leader's a good guy as well as a good player."

    Dayak says his partner in the middle is MLS's best defender.

    "I don't see anyone else who has the ability to close down the best forwards in the league," he says.

    Dayak calls Agoos the Quakes' quarterback in the back.

    "He always knows in which direction he's going to go with the ball when he wins it off a tackle or intercepts a pass," Dayak adds. "It seems he knows where [teammates] are better than most anyone in the league."

    COMFORTABLE FIT. Agoos says the Quakes have been a comfortable fit: "The guys have been great, the organization is one of the better organizations in the league," and he loves the Bay Area.

    He wasn't so happy when he first heard he was Bay Area-bound. Reporters quizzed him about it after the national team dropped a 1-0 friendly to Colombia Feb. 3 at the Orange Bowl. He was dumbfounded.

    Back at the hotel, afterwards, Rongen and Kevin Payne -- D.C.'s president and GM -- confirmed it was true.

    It was a salary-cap move, another in a series of such maneuvers that has halted a D.C. dynasty that foes couldn't stop. Also gone were Carlos Llamosa, to Miami, and Richie Williams, to the MetroStars.

    "We had to make some tough choices," Rongen says. "The nature of the beast for D.C. [is] because of the success, we've had to move players every year."

    Agoos, who saw Raul Diaz Arce, John Harkes and Roy Lassiter go before him, has no problem with this.

    "I was told I probably wasn't going to be traded, but things change, and I understand that," he says. "What I didn't understand and didn't appreciate was how it was handled. I found out from reporters."

    Agoos still can't believe that D.C. United couldn't have found a way to tell him first.

    "I think all the time I was there and all I helped that team accomplish would have been worth something, been worth more consideration," he says, "but I guess not."

    Rongen can appreciate Agoos' unhappiness.

    "We would have liked it to have been handled a little bit differently," insists Rongen, who says news of the trade leaked out. "But it was completely out of our control. I think Jeff knows that."

    A NEW START. Agoos was angry and bitter about it for awhile.

    "Certainly I miss my friends and the people I was very close to in D.C.," he says. "In a sense, I miss D.C. United because of all of the tradition and success we had. But I can't say enough about how happy I am with this change."

    He loves the Bay Area weather, the proximity to the beaches and mountains -- and to brother Brad, an assistant men's soccer coach at the University of California -- but can't stomach the exorbitant housing market. He's renting Vincent Damphousse's house in Los Gatos while the San Jose Sharks' star is home in Montreal for the NHL offseason, an arrangement brokered by former D.C. and San Jose midfielder Shawn Medved, Damphousse's next-door neighbor.

    On the field, he says, the move to San Jose "has certainly worked out for me -- it's certainly helped my career."

    Agoos relishes being the man in the middle -- he was often pushed to the wing in D.C., which usually teamed Llamosa and Eddie Pope in central defense -- and wearing the captain's armband.

    As for MVP talk, don't bother. Agoos is "flattered" by kind words but says he "just tries to give as much as I can to help my team win."

    Others' opinions are more salient.

    "What you've got to look at is how the team has done without Goose," Cannon says.

    Agoos missed four of the first 18 games, two while on national team duty, two while nursing an ailing back. The Quakes, 9-1-4 (and unbeaten since mid-April) with their captain in lineup, won just once without him.

    Cannon, who has emerged as one of MLS's top keepers, credits Agoos for the Quakes' remarkable turnaround.

    "We really struggled last year," Cannon says. "We were really not a good team. I value Goose -- if the voting were today, I'd vote for him."

    Scott French is a senior editor at Soccer America magazine.

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