The San Jose Earthquakes ended their three-game winless streak at Avaya Stadium and kept their playoff hopes alive, besting Real Salt Lake 1-0 on a late goal by Matias Perez Garcia.
San Jose created chances and applied consistent pressure throughout the match, but couldn’t seem slip one past exceptional Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando, who put together one of his best performances of the season despite ultimately conceding in the 87th minute.
Rimando could hardly do anything to stop Garcia’s go-ahead strike that deflected off an RSL defender, after the U.S. International had already dived in the opposite direction as the ball bounced past the goal line.
Salt Lake came to town riding a three-game win streak, but the Earthquakes were a bigger threat throughout the contest, attempting 20 shots to Salt Lake’s six, and six shots on target to the visitors one. Even though the Quakes earned three points by the narrowest of margins, Kinnear believes the scoreline fit the performance:
“It would have been really, I would maybe say unfair, if the game were to end in a different fashion. And funny enough, it’s a little bit of a fluky goal that wins us the game. But I thought we totally deserved it.”
The win puts the Earthquakes one point out of the sixth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, currently held by the Portland Timbers. San Jose has three games remaining, all against teams currently holding playoff spots. The Timbers face two current playoff hopefuls but hold a game in hand.
Kinnear tends to downplay the importance of singular matches, but admitted after the match that earning the three points was especially crucial:
“After last night’s Portland win in Columbus if you had called me and said, ‘Is this a must-win?’ I probably would have said yes it is. I don’t like addressing the games that way, because there are more serious things in life than sport. But if you look at the standings and whatever else and consider our situation, today was a must win.
Victor Bernardez made his return to the lineup following recover from a hamstring injury. For the first time his partner was Fatai Alashe, who continued his three game spell as an emergency center-back with Clarence Goodson suspended due to yellow card accumulation.
Head coach Dominic Kinnear made two other changes to the side that lost to New York City FC last weekend, both on the left side. Shea Salinas reclaimed his spot in the left-midfield, while Shaun Francis was preferred to Cato, who may have suffered a pre-game knock, at left-back.
Matias Perez Garcia nearly scored an olympico on an in-swinging corner kick in the 11th minute, but Rimando got his body in position, deflecting the chance away with his thigh. Chris Wondolowski hit a hard follow-up with his left foot that was blocked off the line, and Anibal Godoy fired the third chance wide of the far post.
The Quakes attacked through Salinas down the left flank for much of the first half, with the veteran consistently challenging 20-year old Salt Lake right-back Jordan Allen, often beating him to the end line. In the 35th minute, Salinas cut inside Allen and fired a low shot that deflected off the near post. San Jose took 20 seconds to unleash the follow-up, which Amarikwa finally rolling towards Rimando, not forcing a save.
The Earthquakes attempted 10 shots to one from Salt Lake in the first half.
Salinas picked up right where he left off in the second half, putting in a perfect low cross for Wondolowski at the far post in the 51st minute. A goal appeared inevitable for Wondo, but Rimando killed that hope with one of the best saves of the season, an incredible diving stop at full stretch.
Kinnear gave Rimando credit, but also thought Wondolowski could’ve taken the chance:
“I think if you were to ask Chris, he’d probably say, ‘I should have scored.'”
Marc Pelosi made another start in the central midfield alongside Godoy, and had his best game in a San Jose uniform. Unfortunately for the Earthquakes, the U-23 U.S. International was issued his fifth yellow card of the season in the 73rd minute and will be suspended for next weekend’s match against Vancouver.
Pelosi was positive after the match, and talked about his role in the blossoming midfield partnership with Godoy:
“Me and [Anibal] Godoy were playing in the middle and when he gets the ball and goes forward, I have to make sure to lock down the middle. I track back on the counter attacks to make sure they don’t attack our center backs with space. I made a few fouls, won a few balls, but overall I think we did well holding down the middle today.”
Bingham reminded everyone he’s a decent keeper in his own right in the 77th minute, making a huge save in a one-on-one situation with Joao Plata, in what was RSL’s best opportunity of the game to that point.
The frustration turned to agony for the home side in the 82nd, when Wondolowski got behind the RSL back line but saw his low finish once again saved by the stretching hand of Rimando, Garcia attempted a curling follow up that sailed just over the crossbar
Plata failed to score again, this time blowing a wide open opportunity right in front of goal in the 83nd minute, after Olmes Garcia’s cross into the box.
With the three points in doubt, Kinnear changed to a 3-5-2 formation, and removed left-back Francis for Sanna Nyassi. The attack-minded formation helped the Quakes finally break through in the 87th, when Matias Perez Garica’s shot from 20 yards out was deflected, leaving the off-balance Rimando no chance of maintaining the draw.
Wodolowski praised his coach for the tactical shift:
“A lot of credit to Dominic. He put us forward when he went to a 3-5-2.”
He was also pleased with the little bit of luck:
It’s nice to finally get bounce. … We’ll take that bounce right now. It gives us that belief again. I think we always had that, but it’s nice to finally pull one out at the end.”
With the Quakes still scrapping for a playoff spot, the goal may be remembered as a crucial moment of the season. Garcia celebrated accordingly, ripping off his shirt before twirling it in front of rabid San Jose supporters.
Unfortunately, Garcia was already on a yellow card for a foul he committed, and earned his second along with his marching orders for his celebration.
The Earthquakes play two of their remaining three games at Avaya Stadium, but have a tall task at home next week, facing Western Conference leaders (and Supporter’s Shield hopefuls) Vancouver Whitecaps Saturday at 7:30 p.m. The Earthquakes are trying to avoid their third consecutive season without a playoff berth, as is Bernardez:
“We have to play better at home; two of those three are here at home. We have to go out there with the mentality to win and accept that nothing else but three points is acceptable.”
If they can do that, the Earthquakes will see themselves back in the dance.