SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The late game magic that has defined Earthquakes soccer in past years was back on display to kick off the 2014 season. In front of a sellout crowd at Buck Shaw Stadium, an Alan Gordon goal in the 95th minute secured a 1-1 draw for San Jose in the club’s opening match of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal against Toluca.
“I thought overall it was a good performance,” said head coach Mark Watson. “We deserved better over the course of 90 minutes given the chances we created, but there are a ton of positives we can take forward.”
The result kept the Earthquakes all-time unblemished home record in CONCACAF tournaments alive, as the club boasts a 6-0-1 record going back to San Jose’s participation in the old CONCACAF Champions Cup in the 2002 through 2004 seasons.
It was almost not to be, as a defensive mistake by Jason Hernandez in the 67th minute allowed Toluca forward Raul Nava to put the visitors ahead with a spectacular goal. But these are the Earthquakes, and their never-say-die attitude served them well when Gordon scored on the last kick of the game.
“He scored a top-notch goal; it was a dagger,” said Gordon. “But to be able to battle back and to show that we are always going to have that in our DNA to come back and get results is good for our confidence.”
Gordon entered the game late in the second half, and after not appearing at all during the preseason, looked fresh and energized. Along with forward partners Chris Wondolowski and Steven Lenhart, Gordon gave the Earthquakes an indomitable front line that gave the Toluca defense all it could handle.
“If you look at the stats,” said Wondolowski, “look at the shots, look at our chances, look at the chances created, I thought we played really well.”
San Jose desperately needed a result at home in the two-game quarterfinal series as the return leg will be played in front of a hostile crowd down in Mexico. Gordon’s heroics ensured that the aggregate score in the series will remain level going into next Wednesday’s match, giving hope to an Earthquakes team that is a big underdog against Toluca.
“I think this team has a lot of fight in them,” said Watson. “Toluca is a tough place to play and they are a very good team, but this team has a lot of spirit and we are going to go down there and try to get the result and move on to the next round.”
Both sides played cautiously over the first quarter of the match, holding possession for sustained spells of time, with Sam Cronin’s 5th minute shot the only attempt from either team on goal. But by the half-hour mark, the cagey affair started to heat up.
A yellow card worthy tackle by Victor Bernardez in the 31st minute gave a Toluca a free kick at the top of the area, but the Red Devils trickery on the attempt was quickly snuffed up by the Quakes defense and the opportunity went lacking.
A corner kick chance in the 34th minute, the Earthquakes first of the match, gave Lenhart an open header on goal, but a Toluca defender Edgar Duenas, perhaps with the help of his right arm, cleared the ball off the line.
In first half stoppage time, some clever midfield play from the Quakes sprung Shea Salinas free along the left edge of the penalty area, and the winger smartly squared a pass to Wondolowski lurking just inside the box. The San Jose forward was quickly closed down by the swarming Toluca defense and his shot was blocked from close range. A follow up attempt from newcomer Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi made it through a phalanx of legs, but goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera was alert enough to make a comfortable save.
The energy of the game did not lapse to start the second half as both teams ventured forward with more intent, putting defenders on notice. A rough tackle by Toluca Erbin Trejo on Bernardez earned the midfielder a yellow card in the 52nd minute.
The Earthquakes executed a near-perfect counterattack in the 55th minute as Cordell Cato collected a ball at the center line and sprinted into space alone the right sideline. A curling cross into the area soared right to Wondolowski near the penalty spot, but his right footed volley was expertly saved by the ‘keeper.
Wondolowski nearly capitalized on a loose ball in the area in the 61st minute, but his redirected shot bounced safely into the hands of Talavera.
The Earthquakes defense, so resolute for the first two-thirds of the game, saw their CCL scoreless streak end at 270 minutes when a miscue from Hernandez, playing in place of suspended defender Clarence Goodson, gave Toluca striker Nava enough space to one-touch volley a scorching shot from 20 yards into the far upper corner of the net for a 1-0 lead. It was a spectacular shot that gave goalkeeper Jon Busch no chance of making a save.
Down a goal, the Earthquakes introduced Gordon for Cronin and rookie JJ Koval for Hernandez in the 73rd minute. The substitutes allowed San Jose to adjust into a more attacking formation, and the game really opened up.
A furious sequence in the 79th minute nearly saw the Quakes equalize. A soaring long ball into the area was met by Lenhart, but his header slammed off the crossbar. Koval, following up the play, blasted a shot off a Toluca defender, and Gordon followed up with another shot that was saved by the scrum in front of goal.
In the 85th minute the Bash Brothers combo nearly struck for San Jose on a quick counterattack. A long pass into space was tracked down by Lenhart nearly the byline, and he skipped a pass into the six-yard box that Gordon connected on by directed wide of the target.
Gordon got his redemption in the 94th minute, as he connected on a free kick delivery from Salinas and headed it just past the diving goalkeeper to level the score at 1-1. It turned out to be the last play of the game and gave San Jose hope in the return leg to be played Wednesday, March 19, in Toluca.