Fatai Alashe’s first professional start began about as ominously as it could have.
Just seconds into the match, the 21-year-old found himself battling for a ball with American superstar Clint Dempsey. Dempsey won possession, knocked over Alashe and proceeded to score off David Bingham’s block, giving the Seattle Sounders a 1-0 advantage 18 seconds into the match.
By any account it was a shocking start for visiting San Jose, and the type of play that could understandably shake the confidence of any player making their first start.
But Alashe was unfazed, playing the next 89 minutes like a veteran and helping push the Quakes toward an improbable 3-2 away victory against one of the best sides in MLS.
Head coach Dominic Kinnear told SFBay he was impressed with how the rookie reacted:
“After (the goal) I thought he played good. He dispossessed some real good players, which I’m sure gave him some confidence. He won quite a few battles and I think he did the job we were asking from him in there.”
Alashe didn’t make excuses regarding the missed opportunity, saying that Dempsey shouldn’t have been called for a foul (Kinnear thought he should have) and that the play reflects the increased physicality that comes from making the jump from college to Major League Soccer.
The opening goal wasn’t the only adversity San Jose faced Saturday evening, also going down to 10 men after Victor Bernardez was issued a red card in the 52nd minute.
This pushed Alashe and fellow defensive midfielder JJ Koval into deeper roles and played to Alashe’s strength as a destroyer. Both were crucial in disrupting the dangerous duo of Dempsey and Obafemi Martins, and kept the Quakes in a match that looked unwinnable. On his role, Alashe said:
“That was specifically my job in the game to disrupt their play through the middle and not let them pick up the ball off our back line. That’s one of those things I kind of take pride in and I’m glad we were able to take advantage of the opportunity.”
The fourth-overall pick in this year’s SuperDraft finished second on the team in tackles with four, and tied for the team lead with five interceptions, according to whoscored.com. Alashe also did an excellent job as a distributer, leading the team with 34 passes.
The result ended a 16-game winless streak for San Jose dating back to last season, and also saw the Earthquakes play at a level rarely seen in 2014. In addition to Alashe, fellow newcomers Sanna Nyassi and Marvell Wynne gave the team energy that had been sorely lacking. A successful first start against last year’s Supporters’ Shield winners has given Alashe piece of mind:
“Now you know you can play at that level for 90 minutes. There’s really nothing to be fearful of or nervous about going into games from now on, because that’s one of the toughest places to play in the league and against one of the top teams in the league.”
Alashe’s start was a surprise to everybody including him. After Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi suffered a hamstring injury last week in training, Kinnear had little choice but to slot the rookie into his 4-2-3-1 formation he had decided on. On the decision to start Alashe, Kinnear quipped:
“It makes it easy when one guy’s not available.”
Alashe found out before training late in the week that he’d be starting in his first competitive match since playing for Michigan State.
Alashe’s partner in the defensive midfield Saturday was 22-year old JJ Koval, who went through a similar experience as a rookie last year, also taking over for an injured Pierazzi for his first MLS start. Despite only playing one game together, the young pairing has already developed a chemistry. Both worked with each other away from the rest of the team for a good portion of Tuesday’s training session.
Alashe is already benefiting from working with another young talent:
“JJ’s definitely a good guy to be playing with. I’ve already learned a lot from him so far. It’s definitely cool seeing another young guy out there with me. We can communicate well together.”
Kinnear praised the desire and aggressiveness of both players:
“I thought him and JJ worked pretty well together…. I think their enthusiasm was good for us, their work was good and I thought we were hunting the ball down pretty good in that area of the field which was a big reason those guys were out there.”
The question mark now becomes Pierazzi, who has left some to be desired since arriving last offseason. With Pierazzi possibly available as early as Sunday’s game against Chicago, Kinnear will have to decide if Alashe impressed enough in his debut to warrant selection over the Frenchman.
Regardless, the midfield duo of Alashe and Koval looks like a solid fixture for years to come.