Fretting about Chris Wondolowski’s national-team absences has become a rite of summer for the San Jose Earthquakes. But this year, they’re suffering a Gold Cup double-whammy on the attacking side of the ball.
In addition to Wondolowski, who scored five goals for the US in the 2013 edition of the tournament, elusive Trinidadian winger Cordell Cato also left the Quakes on the eve of last weekend’s road trip to face the Portland Timbers.
And while everyone around MLS knows what kind of hole the absence of Wondolowski – who has scored nine of San Jose’s 19 league goals this season – will blow in the Quakes’ lineup, Cato’s departure could have a sneaky impact on their offense.
The 22-year-old scored his first goal of the season as the final nail in San Jose’s 3-1 victory June 27 against LA Galaxy before more than 50,000 fans at Stanford Stadium. But Cato has been making contributions since long before that, and doing so from three different positions – right wing, right back and left back – as the Quakes’ injury situation has dictated.
“Wherever they’ve asked him to play, he’s done a great job,” San Jose midfielder Khari Stephenson said. “It’s helped his confidence a lot, and it shows on the field. He’s playing with a lot of confidence; he’s not afraid to take a risk, to take on a guy and do his thing one-v-one, which he’s very good at.”
Cato originally popped up on the Quakes’ radar as a teenager and Trinidad & Tobago youth international in 2012. But Seattle held his MLS rights via a Discovery tag – a fact that took on an ironic bite when Cato scored the only goal in the Sounders’ USOC win over the Quakes that summer. San Jose eventually engineered a trade with Seattle and brought Cato south the following season. He had four goals and four assists in a combined 2,600 minutes over the 2013-14 seasons, but had to prove himself all over again after Mark Watson was let go near the end of last year in favor of returning hero Dominic Kinner. Only assistant Ian Russell remains of the staff that initially brought Cato to the Bay Area.
“I think he’s done great this year,” said Kinnear, who rejoined the club this winter after spending nine seasons leading Houston. “In preseason, he was one of the guys I didn’t really know too much about. And sitting here now, seeing how he’s played and accepted each position and each opportunity given to him, I think he’s definitely one of the bright spots on the team this year. He’s earned every single minute that he’s been given, and he’s made the most of his opportunities.”
"Accepting each position" has meant a greater emphasis on defense, along with what appears to be a gradual transition at right back. Cato has been targeted by opposing teams when he lines up on the back line, but has held up well, using his speed and quickness to handle most 1-v-1 attackers while learning the ropes of combination play.
He's also turned into something of a ballhawk, as the numbers show:
Cordell Cato is averaging 5.89 tackles+interceptions per 90 minutes this season. That is the most on the 'Quakes and 32nd most in MLS.
That success has landed Cato in his first major tournament for Trinidad & Tobago, who face Guatemala in the teams' opener Thursday (7 pm ET; Fox Sports 2), and it might not simply be a group-stage vacation. T&T, who sit 67th on FIFA’s ranking list, are the second-highest team in Group C, trailing favorites Mexico (No. 23) but comfortably ahead of Guatemala (No. 93) and Cuba (No. 107).
Cato’s loss was keenly felt in Portland, a 1-0 Timbers win. Right winger Sanna Nyassi, who has started 15 of 16 league matches thus far, was serving a one-game suspension due to yellow card accumulation. But Cato wasn’t around to fill in – or help make up for Wondolowski’s absence.
“Cordell’s been playing really well,” Quakes midfielder Tommy Thompson said. “It’s difficult to lose any full international, but we have a lot of depth in the squad, so we’re going to fill the holes and do our best to get results going forward.”