The San Jose Earthquakes lost in heartbreaking fashion Wednesday night, falling to Mexican side Toluca 5-4 in a penalty shootout in the final leg of the CONCACAF Champions League Quarterfinal.
Shea Salinas’ penalty kick off the crossbar ended both the match and the Earthquakes’ championship aspirations, after the heavily depleted San Jose side scrapped and clawed for a 1-1 (2-2 aggregate) draw through regulation and extra time.
After back to back saves from the respective keepers, both sides combined to hit nine shots in a row during the shootout, until Salinas, who had the go ahead assist in regulation, got slightly under his spot kick, sending it onto the bar and ending the match.
Earthquakes Coach Mark Watson was proud of the performance despite the result:
“We are disappointed to lose. Anytime you get to penalties, it’s anyone’s game at that point. We played very well with a lineup that had not played together at all. We stayed disciplined and I am very proud of our performance tonight.”
Heavily-favored Toluca dominated both possession and chances throughout the game, controlling nearly 75 percent of the ball and attempting 30 shots to San Jose’s 10.
The Earthquakes put in an admirable performance in the thin air, playing for two hours at nearly 9,000 feet elevation, with seven probable starters out due to injury or suspension, including all four of San Jose’s defenders from the first leg.
The Quakes were also initially without star forward Chris Wondolowski, who came off the bench with a minor groin injury.
Electing to stick with his preferred 4-4-2 formation, Earthquakes Coach Mark Watson was forced to put defensive midfielder JJ Koval at one center-back and Ty Harden, still not fully recovered from offseason hip surgery, at the other.
Koval was terrific filling in at center-back, keeping his position and making important tackles and clearances throughout. Koval also impressed as a substitute in the first leg against Toluca, coming on as central midfielder.
On his impressive starting debut for the club, Koval credited Harden with helping him get acclimated to an unnatural position:
“I enjoyed playing in there. Ty Harden did a great job helping me out tonight. He has a lot of experience and that helped me get comfortable. Everyone did a good job from back to front defending as a unit. We followed runners well and stayed organized.”
Harden looked like the unlikely hero in the second half when he put San Jose ahead in the 57th minute. Using his head to misdirect a Shea Salinas free kick across goal, Harden caught the Toluca keeper rooted to the ground and leaning the wrong way. The assist was Salinas’ third in three games, all on set pieces.
Harden said the team takes a lot of pride in set pieces:
“… we knew coming in that they would be important tonight. We saw that last week in the first leg. On the goal, Shea (Salinas) whipped in a great cross and I was able to direct it into the corner. I wish it had been the game-winner, but unfortunately we couldn’t finish it off.”
Toluca would answer soon after however, once again in incredible fashion. After San Jose failed to clear a Trejo corner, Isaac Brizuela scored on a rocket volley with the outside of his right foot from the edge of the Quakes’ 18-yard box.
The goal was highly reminiscent of Toluca’s go-ahead volley in the first leg, when Raul Nava Lopez hit a cracker after a failed clearance by San Jose.
Toluca nearly put the game to bed late in the second half if not for a crucial headed clearance off the goal line from midfielder Sam Cronin in the 85th minute, following a Toluca corner.
A controversial decision in the 96th minute may have cost San Jose a go-ahead goal. Alan Gordon thought he’d struck another last-second dagger after getting on the end of a perfectly weighted through ball by substitute Chris Wondolowski.
Gordon easily passed the keeper, but the linesman called Gordon offside, despite replays showing him even with left back Miguel Ponce.
Toluca had a chance turned away in the final seconds of of extra time, when Jon Busch got a slight touch on a header in the 118th minute from Toluca’s Wilson Tiago.
The ball hit the crossbar and then bounced off the goal line before being cleared. The save culminated a man of the match performance for Busch, who finished the game with nine saves.
Toluca advances to the semi-finals of the CONCACAF Champions League facing the winner of Alajuelense (Costa Rica) and Árabe Unido (Panama).
The Earthquakes continue their MLS season with a road game against reigning MLS champions Sporting KC in Kansas City Saturday.