Quakes squeeze past Sacra­mento in final tuneup

Photos by Godofredo Vasquez/SFBay

TURLOCK — It may have been just another stop on the San Jose Earthquakes preseason tour, but for newcomers Sacramento Republic FC, Wednesday night marked a momentous occasion.

Sacramento Republic FC played its first game ever in front of fans Wednesday night as a fresh batch of supporters from the state capital made their presence known.

From the first kickoff to the match’s final whistle, the din emanating from CSU Stanislaus’ Warrior Stadium bleachers never subsided.

The Sacramento supporters were so loud that the team turned around during warmups to applaud the fans for their enthusiasm.

When the Quakes put the game to bed 2-0 in the final minutes, chants of “We’re still here!”, echoed throughout the stadium.

For the Major League Soccer Earthquakes, it was another so-so game to close out a so-so preseason. With Sacramento palpably excited to play in front of a crowd, the game was surprisingly level from the outset.

The first half’s most exciting moment came on a goal saving clearance by Sacramento keeper Jake Gleeson, after Quakes winger Cordell Cato nearly got on the end of a loose ball in the penalty box.

Sacramento held their own throughout the match, frustrating the Quakes with physical tackling and a relentless desire for the ball.

The Republic were inches away from taking the lead in the 79th minute, when unmarked forward Thomas Stewart fired a volley against the crossbar.

Earthquakes keeper Jon Busch landed awkwardly attempting to swat away the effort, and left the game with a minor cut above the eye.

The stalemate was finally broken by the Earthquakes in the 86th minute, when a Walter Martinez cross was headed across goal by Alan Gordon, only to find the head of rookie JJ Koval, who scored his first goal in a San Jose uniform.

The Quakes would score again shortly after when Billy Schuler coolly slotted home a bouncing ball in the box at the end of regulation.

Despite playing their first match Wednesday evening, the Republic have already sold over 4,000 season tickets. Drew Farmer, a leader of the Sacramento Republic support group Tower Bridge Battalion, said soccer fans in the state’s capital have been waiting a long time for a professional club:

“You’ve got a very deep grassroots support of soccer in the Sacramento area. People are spending money without even having a team.  It’s so awesome to see our fans who didn’t even had a club yet, with this much excitement.  I mean, you can feel it.”

The Earthquakes were less excited following their performance, with star striker Chris Wondolowski saying after the match that the team’s effort was poor.

With the preseason now over, the Quakes face an incredibly tough CONCACAF Champions League match Tuesday against top-seeded Mexican side Toluca.

Even with Wednesday’s rocky showing, Quakes Manager Mark Watson thinks his side will be ready:

“The preseason has been good for the guys to spend time together.  We’re deep at a lot of positions and have competition throughout the squad. Our goal is to get through these next two champions league matches and advance, and then make the playoffs in the league.  I know who my starting 11 will be on Tuesday, and they’ll be ready.”

The Sacramento Republic begin regular season play in the USL Pro league — the third tier of professional soccer in America — later in March.

The Earthquakes will act as the USL Pro affiliate for Sacramento, sending a few players on loan to train with the club and get experience each season.