After the firing of head coach Mikael Stahre on Monday, San Jose appeared to get a significant boost from interim head coach Steve Ralston. The Quakes had a 2-0 lead Wednesday night about to enter halftime against Atlanta United FC.
But Atlanta is the best team in the MLS for a reason and was able to steal a 4-3 win with a roaring second-half comeback and a game-winning Josef Martinez goal with seconds left in stoppage time.
MLS MVP frontrunner Martinez, flanked by young wingers Miguel Almiron and Hector Villalba have been destroying teams all season, and the Quakes, along with MLS debutant goalkeeper James Marcinkowski, would be no different.
On his debut, Marcinkowski said:
“The result didn’t go our way but selfishly I was excited to be out there with the guys. It’s something I’ve been working towards my whole life, just being up there on the biggest stage its really an honor.”
San Jose needed a fast start against the best offense in the MLS, and in the 13th minute, they were able to snag the lead. A relentless effort from Magnus Eriksson to keep the ball deep in Atlanta’s half would be rewarded when the Quakes attacker regained possession and found a wide-open Shea Salinas just outside of the box.
After receiving the pass, Salinas, with all the space and time in the world, sent in a beautiful swinging cross right to fullback Nick Lima, who headed home the early 1-0 lead.
Atlanta’s dangerous trio up front would answer by forcing Marcinkowski into making some needed saves. Their best chance came in the 27th minute on a Hector Villalba shot inside the box that would be cleared off the line by defender Guram Kashia.
The attacking gameplay would bear more fruit for the Quakes later in the half. In the 44th minute, San Jose doubled their lead thanks to a composed finish from striker Danny Hoesen.
The Quakes No. 9 was played into the box on a long pass from Lima. From there, Hoesen, who had open teammates in the box, chose to take the shot himself and chipped the ball comfortably into the net.
With the Quakes up 2-0 just before the half, coach Ralston’s dream first half was about to wrap up. But Atlanta didn’t care it was Ralston’s first game, and scored a stunner right before halftime. There would be no goal-line clearance this time as Villalba drilled a long-range screamer into the top right corner past a diving Marcinkowski.
At first, San Jose refused to follow the script from previous games, staying mentally focused and avoiding the big mistake that has undone them countless times before.
In the 58th, Valeri ‘Vako’ Qazaishvili kept up his scorching goalscoring form and banged in his fourth goal in as many games. Vako weaved his way through four Atlanta defenders and tucked in his tenth goal on the year.
Up two, San Jose looked well on their way to a rare home win, especially in the 67th minute after Chris Wondolowski came on and scored what would have given the Quakes a substantial 4-1 lead.
Video review, however, would wipe away the goal and instead award Atlanta a penalty kick on the other way of the field after a handball was missed earlier in the play. From the penalty spot, Josef Martinez converted and extended his own MLS record for goals in a season with 29.
Ralston called the call the turning point of the game:
“It’s tough, you’re up 4-1 for a moment, and then its 3-2. It’s a totally different game. I feel really bad for them, because they gave everything tonight and to not at least get a point out of this game is really hard for them.”
“Its always a tough moment when the ref takes it into his hands. To go back and to go back to a 50-50 play that could be called either way. Credit to Atlanta they are an amazing team and their attacking is so dangerous but to be honest I felt a little cheated by the refs.”
From there, Atlanta imposed their offensive style on the stunned San Jose defense with severe pressure. In the 73rd minute, Paraguayan attacker Miguel Almiron and Martinez made parallel runs into the box. Martinez would go down in the box, and while Almiron would argue for a penalty, the ball rolled right to him, and he pounded home the goal, tying the game up at three.
In the fifth minute of stoppage time, with the game nearly finished, Atlanta made one last march up the field. Almiron and Martinez would link up again. Almiron would fire in a cross from the left flank onto an open Martinez, who easily headed home his 30th of the year to complete the Atlanta comeback.
“It was hard to do our shape for 90 minutes. Atlanta are so quick on the counter that a lot of pressure ends up on our back line.”
On the defeat, coach Ralston said:
“Right now I’m disappointed, it was a shock when it (game-winning goal) happened, a lot of different emotions, to be honest. To have to face this team in your first game with one day of training its not an easy one. With the attackers that they have, it’s always hard to prepare for that.”
With the loss, San Jose (4-8-17) remain at the bottom of the MLS table. They travel down the coast for a matchup against Los Angeles FC (13-8-7) who sit third in the western conference playoff picture. They’ll take on LAFC at the Banc of California Stadium Saturday, September 22.