'Quakes avoid season sweep vs. RSL, win 2-1

'Quakes avoid season sweep vs. RSL, win 2-1
September 21, 2013, 9:30 pm
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The Earthquakes are now four points behind the fifth place Colorado Rapids for the last qualifying playoff spot in the Western Conference. (USA TODAY IMAGES)

Robert Jonas

For only the second time all season, the San Jose Earthquakes collected a victory on the road in front of 20,504 at Rio Tinto Stadium.  Two early goals from Steven Lenhart were enough to dispatch of Real Salt Lake 2-1.

“Steven was fantastic tonight,” said interim head coach Mark Watson. “The goals were excellent. He worked hard, he battled for everything, Lenny always gives you 100 percent and it was no different tonight.”

The victory was important for the Quakes quest to make the MLS playoffs.  They are now four points behind the fifth place Colorado Rapids in the race for the last qualifying spot in the Western Conference.  The victory also marked an important milestone for the club. In 16 seasons San Jose has 200 regular season victories.

The Earthquakes (11-11-8) avoided a season sweep at the hands of RSL (14-10-6) Saturday night with the hard-fought 2-1 win. In the previous two wins against the Quakes this season, Salt Lake outscored San Jose 5-0. This was in stark contrast to 2012 when, during their Supporters’ Shield winning campaign, the Earthquakes won three games against RSL by a combined score of 10-2.

“Our mental confidence is great right now,” said midfielder Sam Cronin. “Winning here in Salt Lake is tough so we’re really pleased with the three points.”

The Earthquakes have four more games on their schedule to qualify for the postseason, starting with next Sunday’s game at Chivas USA.  Anything less than a win at RSL might have realistically shut down any thought of the club making the playoffs. Instead, the win keeps them mathematically alive going into the final stretch of the season.

“It was a big win for sure,” said Watson. “Just looking at the standings and the games remaining, we knew we had to be just about perfect the rest of the way.”

Even perfection might not be enough for the Earthquakes to make the playoffs, but at least for one night, with franchise victory number 200 achieved, the team could celebrate a worthy win.

The visitors looked bright early, as the Quakes tried to match the home side for possession. After 15 minutes, and RSL managing to gain a nearly 2-to-1 advantage in holding onto the ball, San Jose retreated into a more defensive formation which helped open up holes in the Salt Lake defense.

In the 18th minute, running a counterattack down the right flank, Cordell Cato found plenty of room to direct a cross into the area behind the retreating RSL defense.  Angling in from the penalty spot, Lenhart connected with the pass and sharply headed it past a diving Nick Rimando to put San Jose up 1-0.

Real Salt Lake did not wait long to equalize as Morales sneaked into space at the far post and one-timed a shot past Busch a minute later. The wide open Morales left a bevy of blue-shirted defenders looking at each other trying to assign blame.

However the Earthquakes did not hang their heads at the opposing goal.  Rather they retook the lead through a free kick opportunity in the 21st minute. As has been their proclivity this season, the Quakes lined up to take a quick restart on the set-piece chance. Shea Salinas scorched a ball into the mixer that Lenhart redirected past Rimando for his second goal of the game pushing San Jose back in front 2-1.

Down a goal again for the second time in just 3 minutes, Salt Lake pressed into the attacking third.  By doing so they increased their edge in possession over the last 30 minutes of the half to more than 4-to-1. However, the Quakes were content to stand strong defensively, soak up the pressure, and look for calculated moves forward.

In the 41st minute, Chris Wondolowski nearly made it a third goal for San Jose, but he couldn’t keep his snap header below the crossbar. A speculative long-range effort from Sam Cronin in the 44th minute was on target, but Rimando made a comfortable catch save.

At the stroke of halftime, RSL set-up for its seventh corner kick of the half. Already having allowed one goal from the corner, San Jose improved their defensive marking enough to clear the ball, preserving the 2-1 lead going into the locker room.

Much like the start of the first half, the Earthquakes came out after intermission with more intent on offense. A stunning save from Rimando in the 49th minute was all that separated Wondolowski and his upper corner-seeking header from extending San Jose’s lead.

After an awkward sliding challenge on Olmes Garcia in the 67th minute, Clarence Goodson received a yellow card by referee Chris Penso. He appeared to be injured on the tackle and was subsequently replaced by center back Jason Hernandez three minutes later.

The Earthquakes have collected seven wins this season when leading after 75 minutes, but in that same time period Real Salt Lake has scored a league-high 19 goals. With the scoreboard reading 2-1 in favor of San Jose, one of those two trends would not continue to the final whistle.

In the 79th minute, Salt Lake brought in forward Robbie Findley for defender Carlos Salced hoping to spark its offense. The former U.S. national team striker almost made an immediate impact for RSL.  In the 82nd minute he split the Earthquakes defense from a Morales feed, but the 2010 World Cup veteran sizzled his shot attempt into the side netting.

The hard-working Earthquakes’ brought every man behind the ball as the match entered five minutes of stoppage time. Goal scoring hero Lenhart was substituted out for Alan Gordon in the 91st minute to slow the game down.  RSL continued their assault on the San Jose goal. On a goal kick in the 93rd minute, Busch picked up a yellow card for time wasting. It proved to be a good decision.

Real Salt Lake had one last chance on a corner kick in the 96th minute, but the delivery soared over the entire mix and out causing a goal kick. Penso whistled the match over and the Earthquakes celebrated their second road victory of the season. San Jose will hope to make it two in a row away from Buck Shaw Stadium when they face Chivas USA next Sunday evening at the StubHub Center.