Pierazzi steps up for shorthanded Earthquakes

Despite the absence of arguably their two most important players, the San Jose Earthquakes are peaking.

With Chris Wondolowski and Victor Bernardez absent, the San Jose role players have elevated their respective games, winning two consecutive matches for the first time in 2014. More importantly, they’ve kept themselves in striking distance for a playoff spot in an exceedingly competitive Western Conference.

First year Quake Jean Baptiste-Pierazzi is among the Earthquakes players who has stepped up considerably. He will get another chance to make his mark when San Jose visits Toronto FC Saturday afternoon.

Pierazzi scored the first goal of his MLS career last week. It also happened to be the best goal of his career, a 40-yard blast that curled away from the helpless Dallas keeper, inside the right post.

The strike put San Jose ahead 2-1, giving them a lead they would keep until final whistle. The Frenchman said of the dream goal:

“It’s the kind of goal you score once in your career.”

It might not be the type of strike we see on a nightly basis from the defensive midfielder who arrived from Ligue 1’s AC Ajaccio this offseason, but his recent consistency in the center of the pitch has improved an area where San Jose has struggled and allowed Pierazzi regain his place in the starting XI.

After spending last season in France’s top league, it was assumed from the outset that Pierazzi would pair with longtime Quake Sam Cronin as the clubs first choice central midfielders.

The duo started in the first four matches, but a rocky spell of form, coupled with a minor foot injury, saw Pierazzi fall to the bench.

Pierazzi returned to start against Houston on May 25, this time partnered with the more attack minded Khari Stephenson, also making his first start of 2014.

The 3-0 victory was enough for the partnership to earn a second start in last weeks 2-1 win against FC Dallas.

The switch from Cronin to Stephenson seemed to make all the difference in the world for Pierezzi, who says he felt an instant synergy:

“It felt like we had been playing for two or three years together after the first match.”

It’s easy to point to the inclusion of Stephenson as the catalyst for Pierazzi’s steady improvement, but Coach Mark Watson also points to the adjustment period after moving to a new league, in a new country:

“There’s so many factors when you change countries. I just think it took him a little bit of time. He’s been here five months, he’s gotten to know how we do things, he’s gotten to know the players. I think his comfort level with what we do is reflective in his play.”

On Saturday, Pierazzi will be sharing the pitch with another foreign newcomer who’s certainly assimilated into the new league, in Toronto FC striker Jermaine Defoe.

Defoe scores nearly every time he plays — with six goals in seven matches this season — and is coming off a brace against Columbus.

With leader Michael Bradley away on World Cup duty, Mark Watson sees the Englishman as the key to the potent Toronto attack:

“I think the player to watch is Jermain Defoe. He can lull you to sleep for 89 minutes and then sneak up in the last minute and score a great goal”

San Jose has won two matches on the trot, and three out of the last four. They currently sit in 7th place in the Western Conference with 16 points, two behind FC Dallas who hold the fifth and final playoff spot.

Following of rough patch of three consecutive losses, Toronto are also experiencing a nice run of form, taking points from their last four. They too find themselves outside the playoff picture, trailing fifth place Columbus by a point.

Unfortunately for Pierezzi and the rest of the Quakes, Stepehnson is unlikely to play Saturday, with the Jamacian still suffering from an ankle injury he picked up at Dallas.

San Jose’s best attacker, Yannick Djalo, cramped up toward the end of last Saturday’s match, but Watson said he’s “hopeful” the attacking midfielder will be available in Toronto.

The match kicks off at 1 p.m. PT live on Comcast SportsNet California, 1590 KLIV and 1370 KZSF.