SAN JOSE -- Not much fuss was made when the Earthquakes picked up Ty Harden's option in the offseason.
After all, the defender missed most of last season because of a hip surgery that sabotaged his first year in San Jose.
But as the Quakes play host to Eastern-leading D.C. United on Friday night, they have Harden to thank for helping create one of Major League Soccer's best defenses that has permitted only 16 goals in 15 games.
With injuries and World Cup call-ups, the versatile defender has appeared in nine games this season -- the most since 2011 when Harden played for Toronto FC.
"I made sure I was ready if I got called upon," he said of returning from surgery.
With central defender Victor Bernardez back after representing Honduras in the World Cup, Harden might return to the bench for the time being.
But as the one player comfortable anywhere on the back line, Harden, 30, is expected to remain a viable part of the reeling Earthquakes (4-7-4).
Despite having allowed the third-least goals in MLS, last-place San Jose is in the midst of a three-game losing streak. It has dropped all of the games by 1-0 scores.
"We've definitely had to defend too much," Harden said. "We want to keep the ball and put people on their back heel."
San Jose has scored a league-low 15 goals, a statistic it hopes to change with the return of striker Chris Wondolowski from the World Cup.
Despite upbeat talk from Quakes camp, the team is on the verge of dropping out of the playoff race before the halfway point.
It finished 2013 tied for fifth with 51 points but lost the tiebreaker to Colorado as the Western Conference's final playoff team.
Using last year's results, San Jose needs 52 points to guarantee a playoff spot, though it's guesswork at the moment.
To reach the magical number, the Earthquakes need 36 points from its final 19 games -- 11 of which are on the road. That would take repeating their feat last year when going 11-5-3, bolstered by a 5-0-2 finish.
"If you think for a second we're going to give up and this season is over, you're crazy," Harden said. "You look at the run this team made at the end of last year, there is no reason we can't make a run."
Harden is but one example of the team's ability to respond to adversity.
The Quakes picked the former University of Washington defender in the 2012 re-entry draft. Just as he established himself, Harden's season ended after he tore cartilage around the hip socket.
Surgeons took 30 percent of Harden's labrum out and shaved his femur bone to reshape the socket and joint.
Harden still is unsure how the injury occurred. At first, he thought he had a groin muscle strain.
The defender also thought it was a complication of a sports hernia injury from the previous year.
The hardest part was "not knowing the path forward, or if there was one," he said.
But Harden knew losing a year wouldn't necessarily be the end of his career.
He had come back from such an experience in 2009. After a promising rookie year with the Los Angeles Galaxy, Harden retired from soccer in 2008 to follow his girlfriend to Switzerland, where she played professional basketball.
The couple is now married, and former Husky basketball star Emily Florence works as a dental hygienist in San Carlos.
While away from soccer, Harden also worked as a volunteer at a children's center in Kenya. His parents worked for Goodwill so volunteerism is ingrained in Harden, who now wants to play soccer as long as he can.
"I knew if I couldn't play anymore I'd be OK, but I knew I'd do everything in my power to play again," he said.
Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/elliottalmond.
DC United (8-5-4)
at Earthquakes (4-7-4),
8 p.m. NBCSN