Trinidadian midfielder Cordell Cato often looked lost on the field when the Earthquakes' season began in March.
Almost a half year later, Cato has polished his game while making a strong case to stick with the club for the foreseeable future.
The promising player with a dyed Mohawk is expected to make his fifth start in six Major League Soccer games Sunday night when San Jose plays host to the Philadelphia Union at Buck Shaw Stadium.
With right-side midfielder Marvin Chavez playing with Honduras in a regional World Cup qualifying tournament, the Earthquakes need Cato's speed along the flanks to counter the Union (10-8-9).
"He can run at defenders," interim coach Mark Watson said. "He can do all the other things, too, which is just as pleasing for a coach."
Watson's staff made it clear what Cato needed to do to distinguish himself when he wasn't playing earlier in the season.
"They just told me, 'You can do it,' " Cato said.
He has made the most of his chance this year after Seattle Sounders FC traded him to San Jose in March for a supplemental draft choice.
His erratic play didn't immediately impress the Quakes' coaches. But the 5-foot-9, 150-pound midfielder took criticism well. Cato, 21, worked on his deficiencies and has become one of the few bright spots in a disappointing season for San Jose (9-11-7).
"He does well in what he sets his mind to," Cato's girlfriend, Jonelle Warrick, said from Trinidad and Tobago.
Cato's homeland is a soccer-loving island at the bottom of the Caribbean chain just off the coast of Venezuela. Cato began playing in the streets in a village northwest of Port of Spain.
He played barefoot, using water bottles for balls and a brick for the goal. Cato joined a youth club at age 11 and eventually worked his way onto the under-20 national team.
The Seattle Sounders FC brought Cato to the United States in 2011.
"I always knew I was going to leave the country," Cato said. "I had it in my mind but I just never knew how."
He's the Earthquakes' youngest player by two years, living in the Bay Area without any family members. Warrick, a defender on the Trinidad women's national team, visits when she can.
Cato's experience underscores how isolating the journey can be for young foreign MLS players.
"But I had it from the start I was going to do what I had to do to make it," he said. "I have to be a man about it."