SANTA CLARA — The San Jose Earthquakes have been nearly unbeatable at Buck Shaw Stadium over the last two seasons, and their favorite houseguest over that time has been the Seattle Sounders.
For the second time in as many meetings this season, the Quakes defeated their chief rivals from the Pacific Northwest by a score of 1-0 in front of an appreciative sellout crowd of 10,525. In what was billed as a “must-win” match for San Jose, the team put in one of its best performances of the season.
“It was a huge win for us,” interim head coach Mark Watson said. “Looking at the standings and where we are, the three points were huge.”
A second half strike from Walter Martinez, who earlier in the game nearly scored on a spectacular bicycle kick attempt, was enough to earn San Jose its fifth home win of the year. For the Honduran playmaker, it was his first goal as a member of the Earthquakes.
“I was very happy,” Martinez said through a translator. “It was great to get the first goal. The important thing is we got a win tonight. We needed three points.”
The match, like most between the Quakes and the Sounders, was a physical affair. In 90 minutes of regulation and over 10 minutes of stoppage time, head referee Sorin Stoica issued six yellow cards, three to each team, and a red card to Sounders midfielder Osvaldo Alonso. Players from both sides conspired to make the game difficult to watch at times, but the Earthquakes showed intensity throughout.
“We would never back down,” said Watson. “I don’t think it’s in our nature. We have a group that gives 100% all the time.”
Goalkeeper Jon Busch, who was required to make only one save on the night, and the Earthquakes embattled defense earned their second shutout of the season with the result, San Jose’s first since beating Seattle back on March 23. The total team effort was a pleasant surprise for the Quakes, and provided some solace in a difficult season.
“It feels really good with everything that has happened this year,” Justin Morrow said. “Everyone stepped up their game tonight.”
The Earthquakes have too often fallen behind in games this year, which often was due to self-inflicted mistakes in the midfield and along the back line. Watson has preached from the day he took over the team that he wants to see a complete effort from every player on the field. Against Seattle Saturday night, his words were heard loud and clear.
“We wanted to have a good start to the game,” said Sam Cronin, “especially energy-wise, even if the soccer wasn’t very good. With the early goals we’ve conceded this year, it was massive for us to start out that way and to get this result.”
Still stinging from its fruitless 2 game road trip back East, San Jose welcomed back Steven Lenhart and Victor Bernardez to the starting lineup to face Seattle, and the two were instrumental in helping the Quakes move even with the Sounders in the crowded Western Conference standings. The win, at least for one evening, kept the team’s flagging playoff hopes alive.
The Earthquakes need a spectacular finish to the season, and they almost had a spectacular start to the game. In the 14th minute, Rafael Baca sent a floating free kick toward the edge of the area that Lenhart headed back through the box. Sizing up the ball, Martinez executed a perfect bicycle kick on target, but goalkeeper Michael Gspurning did well to smother the ball along the goal line.
The Honduran midfielder initiated the next best Quakes opportunity in the 18th minute when, along the left sideline, he picked out Alan Gordon at the far post for an opener header. At full stretch, Gspurning snared the shot, despite the sight of Lenhart bearing down on him. Lenhart picked up a yellow card on the ensuing clearance for a late tackle on defender Djimi Traore.
The teams exchanged yellow cards a few minutes later as Cronin was adjudged to have committed a reckless challenge in the 22nd minute and Seattle defender Zach Scott bundled over Baca along the sideline at the start of a counterattack.
The Quakes, who had to make do without Bernardez during their winless two match road trip last week, welcomed the stellar defender back into the starting lineup and saw just what they were missing in the 29th minute. With the Sounders pressing forward, a pass into the area found Lamar Neagle with seemingly only Busch to beat. Instead, as Neagle was lining up his shot, Bernardez made a well-timed sliding tackle to deflect the ball to safety and keep the match scoreless.
Both squads suffered injuries in the first half as Seattle replaced midfielder and U.S. Men’s National Team starter Brad Evans with Mauro Rosales in the 32nd minute and veteran defender Dan Gargan entered for Jason Hernandez in the 45th minute. The longest tenured Earthquakes player suffered what was described as an adductor strain.
With all the breaks in action, referee Stoica added 5 minutes of stoppage time to the first half. The Earthquakes were the only side to capitalize, but a corner kick chance that found Gordon in the box was headed wide of the target. After over 50 minutes of soccer, the Quakes remained scoreless with Seattle.
The Sounders made one switch at halftime, bringing in former Earthquakes goalkeeper Andrew Weber for injured starter Gspurning. Seattle’s number one was injured in a goalmouth collision with Lenhart during the 18th minute sequence when Gordon’s header was saved on the line.
It didn’t take the Earthquakes long to take advantage of the substitution as in the 48th minute, Martinez fired his side to a 1-0 lead. Bearing down on the Sounders area, Lenhart appeared to take a shot that he scuffed well wide of the target and right to the Honduran. Cutting the ball from his left foot to his right, Martinez bent a shot inside the far post and into the side netting with Weber unable to make contact. The goal was the first for the World Cup veteran in his first season with the Earthquakes.
Weber was nearly beat again in the 54th minute as a pure hustle play from Lenhart allowed the lanky forward to steal possession from Scott moving the ball back toward his own goal. With space in the area, Lenhart took aim at the target, but Weber made a great sliding save to knock the ball away from danger.
The Earthquakes felt they deserved a penalty call in the 64th minute when a searching ball into the Sounders box looked destined to reach a leaping Lenhart. Instead, just prior to meeting the ball, the Quakes forward was pushed off balance by defender Leo Gonzalez. Stoica let play continue, despite the protest from Lenhart and the entire San Jose bench.
After absorbing some Sounder pressure, the Earthquakes turned momentum in the match and in the 72nd minute should have doubled their lead. With a steal in the middle of the field, Shea Salinas made a dead run into the box as the Seattle defense parted to either side. Electing to try a chip with his natural right foot instead of slotting a shot on target with his left, Salinas could only watch his effort drift harmlessly over the crossbar.
The Quakes were unfortunate in the 80th minute to see Gordon receive a yellow card, which will rule out the striker for the team’s next MLS match in two weeks time against the Portland Timbers. On a free kick entry into the area by Bernardez, Gordon leapt high into the air to challenge Weber for the ball, but the goalkeeper made the first touch. Gordon was whistled for the foul and immediately shown yellow despite the honest attempt at the 50/50 ball.
In the 83rd minute, Busch made a good save to preserve the Earthquakes lead when forward Eddie Johnson sent a solid header on target from a corner kick opportunity. The Quakes ‘keeper did not have too much to do on the night, but came up strong when called upon.
An eventful 4-plus minutes of stoppage time came next, with the Sounders earning a free kick deep in Earthquakes territory in the 93rd minute. With nearly every player in the wall, the Sounders Rosales fired into the barrier and the ball deflected away. In the scrum, Seattle’s Alonso was adjudged to have committed a red card offense and was ejected from the match. The Earthquakes, comfortably a man up, saw out the rest of the clock to earn the victory.
San Jose plays EPL side Norwich City in a friendly next Saturday before returning to MLS action in two weeks against the Portland Timbers.