San Jose Earthquakes concede late equalizer, settle for 2-2 draw with Chicago Fire

(Anthony Ampaipitakwong registered the first two assists of his MLS career against the Chicago Fire. Photo: Joe Nuxoll, centerlinesoccer.com)

Twice the San Jose Earthquakes took the lead and twice the Chicago Fire answered with equalizing goals as the two teams played to a 2-2 draw Saturday evening at Toyota Park. Ramiro Corrales scored his first goal of the season for San Jose off a corner kick early in the second half, before Chicago answered through Dominic Oduro bundling a loose ball into the net. Chris Wondolowski restored the Quakes lead with a fine header for his team leading sixth goal of the campaign, but an equally impressive header from the Fire’s Cory Gibbs leveled the score and left both teams with a share of the spoils.

“It was a pretty even game tonight,” assessed head coach Frank Yallop in his post match comments. “I think that we are disappointed not to get the win, but a tie on the road is a good result. Our effort was excellent and we fought to the end which was good to see. We also scored some good goals, especially the second one and nearly had a couple of more.”

Midfielder Anthony Ampaipitakwong, a halftime substitute for an ineffective Joey Gjertsen, assisted on both Earthquakes goals. He delivered the corner kick for Corrales to head home, while sending in a right footed cross to the head of Wondolowski on the second. For the rookie out of Akron, the two assists marked the first points of his MLS career.

“The first one was a corner so I just wanted to play a dangerous ball into the box,” shared Ampaipitakwong after the game. “Ramiro (Corrales) got on the end of it and had a good finish. On the second goal, Ramiro (Corrales) made a good play and drew two defenders to him to free up space for me. I saw Wondo (Chris Wondolowski) and when he is in the box, you have to get him the ball. He just flicked it in the corner for the goal.”

Wondolowski played his last minutes for the Earthquakes before departing to join the U.S. National Team as they prepare for the upcoming CONCACAF Gold Cup. In placing his goal just outside the reach of Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson, Wondo recorded his third headed goal of 2011 to match his three left-footed shots that reached the back of the net this season. That balance and versatility in scoring was cited by USMNT head coach Bob Bradley as a big part of why he chose the Quakes striker for his squad of 23 players. The task of the Earthquakes in Wondolowski’s absence, expected to be four league games, is to find offensive help from others on the field. Otherwise, the team’s current four game unbeaten streak has a good chance of being broken.

“We scored two goals on the road tonight and that is usually enough for us to get a win,” said Wondolowski from the visitors’ locker room. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t finish off the game, but we played a good game overall. We are disappointed, but we are still unbeaten in four games so that is a positive that we can take out of this game.”

Coach Yallop concurred with his star striker that the result was fair, though it must be said that twice losing the lead suggests that more work needs to be done to solidify the team’s defensive efforts in the late going of matches. While the weekend results throughout MLS leave the Earthquakes just a point off a playoff spot, settling for draws when the wins are at hand is a sure-fire way to remain rooted in the will-they-or-won’t-they limbo of making the postseason. The bottom seed in the 2010 MLS playoffs, the Earthquakes need to continue their improvement on the offensive side, but can’t forget to play the team defense necessary to protect a lead.

“We are now unbeaten in six games in regulation in league and Open Cup play so we feel good about that,” claimed coach Yallop. “We are headed in the right direction now and we keep improving. Both teams had guys that played a lot of minutes on Tuesday and put in another big effort tonight. There were some tired legs out there, but I think it was a quality game and both teams played some good stuff tonight. In the end, a tie is a probably a fair result.”

The Chicago Fire nearly jumped to a quick lead in the match, as in the sixth minute team-leading scorer Diego Chaves picked up a loose ball at the top of the Earthquake area and dribbled toward the goal. He unleashed a rocket of a shot that eluded goalkeeper Jon Busch before caroming off the inside of the right post and across the mouth of goal to deflect off the left post. Fortunately for San Jose, the loose ball could not be redirected on target, and the match remained scoreless.

In the 11th minute, the Earthquakes had their first scoring opportunity of the night as Khari Stephenson collected a ball near midfield and fed Steven Lenhart near the top of the area arc. Swinging the ball to the left side, Ramiro Corrales — playing as a midfielder while Bobby Convey played as a back — settled the pass and fired a ball from 20 yards that slid just wide of the far post. Chris Wondolowski, rushing in from the right side on the sequence may have been better served as the target of a pass from Corrales, but the effort was still promising.

In the 17th minute, Fire forward Chaves boldly dribbled into a quartet of Quakes defenders at the top of the area, whereby the ball the ball deflected to an open Marco Pappa on the left side of the scrum. The Guatemalan call-up to the Gold Cup set himself to unleash a shot from his preferred left foot, which gave Stephenson just enough time to position himself to contest the effort and deflect it out for a corner kick.

As the clock ticked past the 20 minute, the game continued to be a disjointed affair for both sides. The Earthquakes were definitely shaky in the center of the pitch, as Stephenson and Brad Ring could were not working well together to find passing lanes moving forward. Primarily, the Quakes were relying on long balls to Lenhart, but he was often stranded with little help from the midfield to relieve the subsequent pressure from the Fire defenders. The right side especially was having a difficult time of things as Joey Gjertsen and surprise starter Steven Beitashour were too often bogged down with defensive responsibilities. The one bright spot in the opening stanza was midfielder Corrales, who despite playing the entire 120 minutes of Tuesday’s U.S. Open Cup qualifier, commanded the left side of the field with good passing and defensive help.

In the 25th minute, the Quakes finally received some solid defense from the center midfielders, as Ring cleaned out the Fire’s Daniel Paladini on a loose ball near midfield to start an attacking sequence into the Chicago half. Stephenson selected Corrales on the left side with the ball, and the midfielder took a touch toward the area before sending a low cross through the six-yard box that just eluded the onrushing Lenhart. The ball rolled away harmlessly, and the Fire regrouped.

After 15 minutes where the play bogged down between the boxes, the Fire finally seized on an opportunity in the 39th minute. Defender Gonzalo Segares, who was red-carded in Tuesday’s USOC qualifier against the Quakes but able to play because player suspensions do not translate among competitions, initiated a sequence that saw him overlap into the Quakes half before leaving the ball for Dominic Oduro. The midfielder deftly passed to Chaves who himself one-touched the ball back to Segares inside the area. He blasted a shot that Busch stretched out to deflect past the goal for a corner kick. The entire play was the best scoring opportunity for either team through the opening 45 minutes of the game.

The whistle signaled the end of an opening half and the teams entered their respective locker rooms with the game still scoreless. The Earthquakes did little in the attacking third in the first half, with much of the blame for that firmly at the feet of the midfielders. Ring especially did little to show why he was coach Yallop’s choice as a central midfielder over the last month of league matches, as he gave away possession on nearly a half-dozen occasions within his own half. The striking partnership of Wondolowski and Lenhart was too often left high and dry by those failures to link up passes, as well as some rather pedestrian play from the right side. The defensive back four stayed solid, but did little else to help in transition, with Convey the only one to venture with regularity into the Chicago half. Overall, the Quakes appeared content to slow the game down and stay alert for counterattacking opportunities or successful hold-up play from Lenhart to charge the offense. As a result, the Quakes registered just two shots, both off target, the entire half.

Coach Yallop made one change entering the second half, as Gjertsen was removed in favor of rookie midfielder Anthony Ampaipitakwong. Himself a substitute Tuesday night after a lackluster performance in the USOC qualifier, Ampai was given a second chance to face the Fire this week. Immediately the Akron product brought a more reliable option for the Quakes advance on the right side, and the possession statistics swung firmly in favor of San Jose in the early going of the second half.

In the 49th minute, some improved passing from the central midfield duo of Ring and Stephenson allowed the Quakes wingers more space on the flanks. Switching the ball to the left, Corrales collected the ball and dribbled into space toward the byline. Sending a cross into the area, Lenhart shook free of defender Cory Gibbs just enough to give him space to head the ball toward goal. Appearing as if the shot might skip outside the post, goalkeeper Johnson did the Quakes a favor when he nicked the ball as it traveled over the byline.

Ampaipitakwong hustled over to the left corner to take the kick, and he sent in a right-footed in-swinger that Corrales headed in for a goal. Getting some leverage on his marker, the 20-year old Colombian forward Cristian Nazarit, Corrales sent his clinical finish just inside the far post and past the helpless Johnson. The goal was well deserved for an Earthquakes side that had played with much more intent since the start of the second half.

The lead was nearly short lived, as seconds after the restart Earthquakes defender Jason Hernandez nearly gifted Nazarit the ball just inside the Quakes area. His attempt to head the ball back to Busch was soft enough that the San Jose ‘keeper had to rush to meet the ball ahead of the Fire forward before any damage could be done. However, with renewed purpose, Chicago pressed forward in search of an equalizer as the Quakes midfield collapsed too much toward their back line and conceded space to the Fire counterparts.

Despite the efforts of the Fire, it was the Quakes that nearly doubled their lead in the 55th minute. With space to maneuver on the right side, Ampaipitakwong carried possession into the Chicago half before delivering a long cross over the defense and right to the feet of Wondolowski at the far post. Instead of volleying in a typical left-footed shot, Wondo scuffed at the ball and it trickled harmlessly to Johnson in goal. The reigning MLS Golden Boot winner did not miss many opportunities like that last season, and surely rued the missed chance.

The Wondolowski opportunity proved to be just a hiccup in their dominance of play since the Corrales goal, and Chicago was soon back to pressuring the Quakes back four. With seconds left in the 56th minute, Nazarit collected a pass at the top left side of the area and blasted a shot that deflected off defender Hernandez and past goalkeeper Busch. With the ‘keeper only able to turn and watch, the ball ricocheted off the left post, across the face of goal, and back off the right post — the second such occurrence for the Fire in the match. Unfortunately, with Busch and most of his defenders flat-footed and ball watching, midfielder Oduro rushed in and bundled the ball over the line for the equalizer.

The Earthquakes did not immediately recover, and the Fire nearly stole the lead in the 65th minute after a giveaway led to an open shot from Marco Pappa from 25 yards out. Hitting the ball with his preferred left foot, Pappa saw his shot deflected for a corner kick. In the ensuing play, defender Yamith Cuesta found himself with only Busch to beat, but he was ruled offside as he somehow conspired to sky the ball over the crossbar.

Two minutes later, Lenhart had a chance to restore the Earthquakes lead, but he could only manage to head a corner kick delivery from Ampaipitakwong wide of the target. While Lenhart again proved what a physical presence he could be for the Quakes in the attacking third, he was still plagued by an inability to direct his headed shots on target. Often a criticism while a member of the Columbus Crew, coach Yallop has mentioned repeatedly that he hopes the Quakes target forward can improve in that area. With Wondolowski away from the team for the next month, more impetuous for Lenhart to do just that exists if the team is to continue their unbeaten ways.

In the 68th minute, Yallop made a change in the midfield to bring in defensive midfielder Sam Cronin for Stephenson. The introduction of Cronin benefitted Ring greatly, as the latter was able to play more comfortably in front of the former. The two central midfielders also swapped responsibilities at times depending on the situation, which gave the Quakes more control of possession in their own half of the field.

The shifting tide of momentum turned back to the Quakes with the introduction of Cronin, and in the 74th minute they were rewarded for their solid defensive shape. Collecting a pass in the middle of the pitch, Corrales sent a long diagonal ball through the Fire defense to Ampaipitakwong on the right wing. With plenty of space to work with and only one defender to deal with, Ampai cut the ball back toward the center and passed the ball onto the feet of the onrushing Corrales. Drawing two Fire defenders with him as he drove toward the byline, Corrales cleverly back-heeled the ball to Ampai at the top of the area with plenty of time to survey his options. Spying Wondolowski running into toward the six-yard box, the midfielder chipped a cross right to his target, and Wondo did the rest as he headed the ball to the far post to restore the Quakes lead at 2-1.

The entire sequence was a highlight reel worthy example of keeping your shape defensively while filling space in transition. The spontaneity of the Corrales back-heel pass was enough to distract the Fire defense long enough to set up the cross and goal and punctuated the fine give-and-go interplay with Ampaipitakwong. For his efforts, Corrales was also awarded an assist on the Wondolowski goal.

However, as the Fire did after the first Earthquakes goal, they surged forward into the attacking half with renewed intent to find an equalizer. Reminiscent of Chicago’s response in last season’s Quakes visit to Toyota Park, where a late Ike Opara goal gave the visitors a lead on the Fire and the San Jose defense went on full alert, the same theme played out in Saturday night’s match.

In the 80th minute, the Fire earned a corner kick and brought forward their big bodies into the Quakes area. Doing a fine job protecting his six-yard box, Busch rose high to meet the corner kick and punch it to safety on the left side. However, with both teams clogging space in the San Jose half, the ball fell back to Fire midfielder Pappa and was sent into the area off a fine cross from Baggio Husidic. With Lenhart draped over his shoulder, Gibbs dove to meet the ball and head it just inside the right post for a Chicago goal.

For the second time in the match, and unlike what happened in 2010, the Fire scored to draw level and frustrate the Earthquakes attempts to hold the lead. With ten minutes left on the clock, the visitors had plenty of time to find a third goal, but San Jose appeared to ease up and ceded most of the match’s momentum to the home side.

Wondolowski had a good chance to restore the Quakes lead in the 85th minute when he took a feed from Ring following a solid midfield challenge and dribbled toward goal. Eschewing the chance to pass to Lenhart running down the center of the pitch, Wondo continued to carry the ball to the edge of the area before taking a shot on goal that lacked enough power to trouble the goalkeeper. While no fault can be assigned to the forward for not passing the ball, Wondo did not make good contact on a shot for the second time in the match and made it easy for Johnson to make the save.

Perhaps settling for the draw on the road, coach Yallop used his last substitution of the night to bring in defensive midfielder Brandon McDonald for Corrales in the 87th minute. With the Fire also running out of steam as the match crept closer to the final whistle, the Earthquakes decided to play it safe rather than risk letting in a third Chicago goal.

The final scoring opportunity for either side came in the 90th minute as Cronin was fouled hard about 30 yards from goal on the right side. Lining up the free kick not too far away from where he scored his wonder-goal against the New England Revolution the week before, Convey instead delivered a floating cross to the edge of the six-yard box. Four Earthquakes players attempted to meet the teasing ball, but goalkeeper Johnson used his size to punch the ball away from danger.

The match ended with a scoreline of 2-2 — the second time in a week that the Quakes and Fire played 90 minutes to that result — and San Jose earned a point on the road. The second half was a much better showing for the Earthquakes as first Ampaipitakwong and second Cronin transformed the midfield into a more possession oriented unit. While the draw gives the Earthquakes another point in the Western Conference standings and streaks their unbeaten streak in MLS regular season play to four games, late goals in two of those games has robbed the Quakes of four additional points. San Jose returns to Buck Shaw Stadium this upcoming Saturday to try to stretch their unbeaten streak against the visiting Houston Dynamo.

San Jose Earthquakes vs. Chicago Fire
May 28, 2011 – Toyota Park
Attendance: 11,926

Scoring Summary: SJ — Ramiro Corrales (Anthony Ampaipitakwong) 49; CHI — Dominic Oduro (unassisted) 57; SJ — Chris Wondolowski (Anthony Ampaipitakwong, Ramiro Corrales) 74; CHI — Cory Gibbs (Baggio Husidic, Marco Pappa) 80.

Misconduct Summary: CHI — Cory Gibbs (caution) 81.

San Jose Earthquakes — Jon Busch, Steven Beitashour, Jason Hernandez, Ike Opara, Bobby Convey, Joey Gjertsen (Anthony Ampaipitakwong 46), Brad Ring, Khari Stephenson (Sam Cronin 68), Ramiro Corrales (Brandon McDonald 87), Steven Lenhart, Chris Wondolowski.

Statistics: Shots: 8; Shots on Goal: 5; Saves: 2; Fouls: 11; Offside: 1; Corner kicks: 3.

Chicago Fire — Sean Johnson, Bratislav Ristic, Yamith Cuesta, Cory Gibbs, Gonzalo Segares, Dominic Oduro (Gaston Puerari 81), Daniel Paladini (Baggio Husidic 76), Logan Pause, Marco Pappa, Cristian Nazarit, Diego Chaves (Orr Barouch 74).

Statistics: Shots: 13; Shots on Goal: 4; Saves: 3; Fouls: 9; Offside: 3; Corner kicks: 4.

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