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Feb 2, 2006

Finding a home in defense

Finding a home, both on and off the field, can present a player with an assortment of challenges. The nomadic lifestyle of a professional athlete can be unsettling, as one continually tries to adjust to a new city. The same can occur on the field as well, as players battle for a spot in the lineup. And if there is one player who knows the ins and outs of these twin struggles, it's Houston 1836 fullback Kelly Gray.

When Gray was traded last June from the Chicago Fire to the San Jose Earthquakes, he fulfilled a professional dream of suiting up for his hometown club. That dream even had a storybook start: On June 18, Gray scored during his home debut in a 3-0 win over Real Salt Lake.

Although the season ended on a sour note with the Quakes' playoff ouster at the hands of bitter rival Los Angeles, Gray's season saw him emerge as one of the cornerstones of the San Jose defense. And the joy of playing in front of family and friends was something Gray hoped would last well into the future.

That dream proved to be short-lived, as the Quakes morphed into Houston 1836, a point driven home yesterday as the 36ers (for lack of a better term) went through their first day of practice. It was a Space Mountain-like experience for Gray -- both vertigo-inducing and invigorating.

"It was strange," said Gray. "Going to training, we had no idea where we were going. To find the locker rooms was a bit of a task. But the locker rooms are big, the practice field is awesome, and [Robertson Stadium] is so good. It's like a perfect soccer stadium. I think everyone is really psyched about that."

An even bigger reason to be psyched is that Robertson Stadium in some ways mirrors the best aspects of the team's former home at Spartan Stadium. Spartan's cozy dimensions meant that games were played at a frenetic pace, and the 10-foot high walls surrounding the field made the playing surface seem even smaller. It made a visiting team's trip to Spartan about as much fun as watching "Project Runway." Though Robertson is a bit wider, the environment could prove to be similar to Spartan.

"The fans are almost on top of the field, which I think is great," said Gray. "It almost reminds me of a European stadium. If we have some good crowds in there, it will be amazing."

Gray's attempt to settle into his new surroundings comes at a time when his on-field home is finally becoming more established. When the University of Portland product first entered the league in 2002, he had seen extended spells all over the field, both with the Pilots and with the U.S. U-20 national team. That versatility was expected to be one of Gray's strengths, but in his time with the Fire, it proved to be his undoing. When Chicago was short of cover in a certain part of the field, Gray was often asked to take the bullet, making it nearly impossible for him to find a position his own.

"It happened a number of times," said Gray. "There was a game a couple of years ago against Columbus when all of our forwards were away on international duty, so after playing defender all year, I played forward. Whoever came in for me at defender that game did a good job, and then it was a battle to get back to the position I was playing in originally."

As Gray entered the 2005 season, he hoped he could nail down a starting position in defense, and several games into the campaign, it appeared all was well. Gray was a constant in the lineup. But prior to the April 30 match against Columbus, he was told by head coach Dave Sarachan that he would be rested because he had played every minute of the team's first five games. But when Gray went the full 90 minutes in that weekend's reserve match, he knew something was up.

"I approached [Sarachan] about it and he said, 'Well, we must have had a misunderstanding,'" said Gray. "I just left it at that, and basically I didn't play again."

The emergence of players like Gonzalo Segares certainly didn't make it any easier for the San Jose native to get back in the lineup. And when the Quakes came calling about a potential trade, he jumped at the chance to head back home. Gray recalls that Sarachan was initially reluctant to pull the trigger, but some prodding by both the player, and his agent, Lyle Yorks, ultimately convinced Sarachan to do the deal.

Gray added, "I'm glad that [Sarachan] did, because it made all the difference in the world to me."

It made all the difference to the Quakes as well. With defenders Troy Dayak and Craig Waibel sidelined by season-ending injuries, Gray was immediately inserted into the lineup at right back. It was at this point that San Jose embarked on a run that won them the Supporters' Shield, and Gray was there every step of the way, making the second-round draft pick that was given up (Chicago used it to select Indiana's Brian Plotkin) seem like an excellent value. Houston head coach Dominic Kinnear certainly has no regrets.

"[The staff] was talking at the draft, and we were saying 'If Kelly Gray were available with a second round pick, would you pick him,' and I think the answer would be yes," said Kinnear. "He complemented our team very well. He's a good passer of the ball, and he understands the position of right back. He also formed a good relationship with Brian Mullan, so I think he fit well with our team last year."

Now that Gray appears to have found a home at right back, the next challenge is to turn his newfound comfort on the field into a breakthrough with the U.S. national team. With the squad in the midst of a World Cup year, that isn't likely to happen in the short term, but it's something that remains in his long-term plans. And in order to do that, Gray knows there are parts of his game that he'll need to improve, especially those that require a certain ruthlessness.

"I definitely need to be more aggressive," said Gray. "Not reckless, but kind of. That one is hard for me because I think I'm a nice guy, pretty laid- back, relaxed. I need to take a page out of Eddie Robinson's book."

With the departure of Danny Califf, Gray could find himself playing alongside Robinson in the center of defense, but the potential move into the middle doesn't concern him, especially now that he's more established with the team.

"My goal is to get a starting spot and make it mine," said Gray. "Whether it's at center back or right back, I'll be totally happy."

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com