With penalty kicks looming and both sides showing the effect of playing nearly two hours of soccer, defender Ike Opara caromed a Sam Cronin cross into the net for the only goal in a 1-0 extra-time win for the San Jose Earthquakes over the Portland Timbers. The midweek match was part of the second round of MLS qualifiers for the last two of eight spots available in the 2011 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup tournament. By virtue of Opara’s match winner, the Quakes will face the Chicago Fire later this month in a “win and you’re in” game to enter the tournament proper.
The Earthquakes earned the match winner on the tail end of a set piece. In the 29th minute of extra time, substitute forward Ellis McLoughlin forced the Timbers into conceding a corner kick with some good pressure along the byline, and Cronin stepped up to deliver the kick. Portland could only clear the ball back in the direction of the Quakes defensive midfielder, and he promptly returned the ball into the area where his teammates remained. With Timbers goalkeeper Troy Perkins rooted to his line, Opara deflected the cross part with his head and part with his neck back toward the near post. Without much power on the shot, it appeared Perkins might get to the ball, but his initial momentum was in the opposite direction, and he could recover only enough to wave at the ball as it nestled into the side netting for a 120th minute goal.
Opara raced to the corner flag in celebration at his first goal of 2011, but was awarded a yellow card for removing his shirt — the sixth caution of the night for the Earthquakes in what was a chippy affair. As much relief as it was exaltation from Opara, the goal was a fine reward for the defender after missing out on an opportunity to put his team ahead in regulation with a similar set piece effort in the 22nd minute that went wanting. In avoiding penalty kicks, the Earthquakes took all the uncertainty out of that possibility with a well deserved goal in the run of play.
On the heels of the disappointing weekend loss to the Philadelphia, head coach Frank Yallop responded with a starting XI that featured nine players that have started for the Earthquakes so far in the early stages of the 2011 MLS season. Yallop had discussed earlier in the week that he hoped to use this U.S. Open Cup qualifier as an opportunity to strengthen the defensive efforts of the team as well as encourage more of a winning attitude following a difficult spell in league play. Facing a Portland Timbers side that featured a litany of reserve players — they face a tough visit from the Union on Friday — front line starters like Chris Wondolowski, Bobby Convey, and Sam Cronin were tasked with leading the Quakes past an opponent that clearly was looking beyond this game.
The first third of the match was choppy and fairly even in terms of possession and quality of play. With the Timbers home field being artificial turf, the Earthquakes appeared to need that time to adjust to the flow of play that is dictated by playing on a faster surface. With passes running quick and balls skipping on the watered turf, heavy touches often led to disruptions in possession as well as giveaways to the Timbers. As a result, any semblance of the possession oriented tactics the Quakes used to effect in the early part of the season were abandoned in favor of quick releases and long balls out of their defensive end of the field.
Playing at home, the Timbers had a familiarity with the turf that gave them a slight edge in the early going of the game. In the 8th minute, goalkeeper Andrew Weber — making his first start of 2011 for the Earthquakes — was forced into making a fine double save after Portland pressed forward in search of the game’s first goal. The fine effort from Weber spurred on the Quakes defenders on the night, and the ‘keeper had little else to do over the rest of the night.
Playing with more energy after the opening scare from the Timbers, the Earthquakes had three good chances to take the lead as the game clock ticked past the twenty minute mark. First was the aforementioned Opara miss of a corner kick in the 22nd minute, followed closely by a non-penalty kick infraction in the 24th minute that the referee failed to call when Ryan Johnson was taken down in the area as he corralled a Brad Ring entry pass. In the 28th minute, a long free kick into the area was headed toward goal by Wondolowski but it was not going to reach the target. Opara raced toward the wayward ball and was bested by Perkins in a play that left the lanky defender shaken and on the ground. Three promising opportunities in the attacking third — all products of the Earthquakes beginning to assert themselves in the game — but no shots on target to show for the effort.
The Timbers were not without their chances as well to this point in the first half, but solid play from the Earthquakes back four of Steven Beitashour, Opara, Bobby Burling, and Ramiro Corrales kept Portland at bay. Forwards Ryan Pore and Sal Zizzo were constantly forced to the outside on the narrow Jeld-Wen pitch and could do little in the center of the field. Beitahour especially showed great resolve on the right side for the Quakes and constantly frustrated the Timbers forwards. Assisted by defensive midfielder Sam Cronin, the Quakes defense played with more vigor and coordination than they had all season, despite the shake-up in the line-up from games past. Opara highlighted the effort, using his athleticism to frustrate the Timbers in the air and on the ground with well timed challenges to disrupt their possession. Beitashour also looked solid for the Quakes and looks fully recovered from early season injuries that limited his effectiveness.
The Earthquakes had their best scoring chance of the first half in the 35th minute, as a Cronin free kick into the area was punched out by goalkeeper Perkins right to the feet of Brad Ring. The midfielder took little time in unleashing a blast back toward the goal, but it sailed high and wide of the target much to his disappointment. Over the remaining ten minutes of the half, neither team looked dangerous, with a 40th minute effort by Johnson to carry the ball into the area before dumping it back to Khari Stephenson resulting in a defensive clearance before a shot could be attempted.
The halftime whistle ended a promising half for the Earthquakes, where the momentum clearly shifted into their favor over the course of the 45 minutes. Despite not having a shot on target in the half, the build-up play was better than it had been the past three weekends, and the defensive effort was at a high point for the young season. With the Earthquakes looking most dangerous on set pieces, especially with Opara stationed in the middle of the expectant scrums in front of goal, the team looked most likely to break through for a score through that manner.
The second half saw both teams trot out the same line-ups, with coach Yallop holding on to his three available substitutions for use later in the game. Even with the so-so first half performances from Stephenson and Johnson, bringing off either so early in a game that had the possibility of going into extra time would not be prudent. Bench players such as Steven Lenhart and Anthony Ampaipitakwong — guys who played significant minutes in the weekend loss to the Union — could have added a more to the game in terms of hold-up play at target forward and creativity in the midfield respectively, but neither would begin warming up for possible inclusion into the game till later in the half.
Portland came out in the second half looking to disrupt the Earthquakes momentum by dialing up the physical play in both offense and defense. When possible the Timbers added a little extra in challenges, or in the case of Zizzo in possession, created fouls through persistent embellishment. In total, 45 fouls were called in the game, with the majority of those coming in a choppy second half. The strategy worked to bog the game down, and neither side had much to show in their offensive efforts. Instead, the Quakes stood toe-to-toe with the physical play of the Timbers, and proceeded to earn three yellow card cautions for persistent infringement and rough play.
After a 46th minute scoring chance from Stephenson was blocked by defender Steve Purdy, as was the follow-up shot from Ring, the Earthquakes would not threaten again on offense for nearly thirty minutes. After Wondolowski ran into two defenders while carrying the ball into the area in the 75th minute, the Quakes captain dropped the ball off for strike partner Johnson to blast at goal. Heading toward the crossbar, the goalkeeper just got a hand on the shot to send it harmlessly over the bar and into the crowd. The Earthquakes were getting closer to breaking through the defensive shell of the Timbers, but still lacked that nose for goal needed to escape from the scoreless tie.
Perhaps because of the physical play in the second half, the Earthquakes midfield was doing little to advance the ball into the attacking third, and was constantly under pressure from a Timbers team that very often bunkered down in their own half of the field. Cronin and Ring in the middle found little space to operate and were forced to cede possession to Convey and Stephenson on the wings. Unfortunately, the usually reliable left-side tandem of Convey and Corrales were not having as effective a game as witnessed over that last season and a half, primarily a product of the left back limiting his overlapping runs in an effort to contain Pore and Zizzo on the wings. Play on the right side mirrored that on the left, with Beitashour not venturing too far past the center line for most of the game. Where the Quakes were most effective was when they could pin the Timbers down in their own end, such that Convey and Stephenson were in closer quarters to the forwards. Passing looked better during this time, and dangerous set piece opportunities were often the result given the propensity of Portland for persistent player persecution.
The last fifteen minutes of regulation was about as ugly a stretch of soccer as seen all night, with neither team doing much to hold possession beyond a half-dozen passes, and most sequences of play interrupted by fouls from the opposing team. The Timbers, who hadn’t tested Quakes goalkeeper Weber since the opening minutes of the game, forced him into a fine save in the 86th minute off a blast from distance off the foot of Adam Moffat. Unable to catch the ball cleanly, Weber was alert enough to dive on the rebound before Pore could sneak in a follow-up shot.
In the 90th minute, Johnson dribbled a ball through the right side of the area before finding space to shoot on target from a tight angle. Perkins tipped the ball wide of the post to concede corner kick to the Quakes, and the area quickly filled with San Jose players looking for their chance to break the deadlock. The cross floated over the assembled mass to the far post where it was met by Corrales. His header was just wide of the target and deflected off the side netting as the Quakes last effort of regulation. If the shot had found its way into the goal, the symmetry of Corrales scoring the game winner would have bookended nicely with the goal he scored for San Jose against the Timbers in the 2004 U.S. Open Cup. Instead, the referee blew his whistle on the game, and both teams prepared for thirty minutes of extra time.
The first stanza of bonus soccer was all Earthquakes, with the Timbers playing as if they were content to move the game to penalty kicks. Substitutes Justin Morrow and Steven Lenhart both provided some spark to the Quakes attack, but Portland remained up to the task and parried away promising buildups in the 93rd and 103rd minutes. In minute 104, the Earthquakes appeared to take the lead courtesy of a goal from Lenhart off a Cronin free kick. Instead, the referee spotted a blatant hand ball from the striker, waved off the goal, and awarded Lenhart a yellow card caution for his efforts.
Into the second fifteen minutes of extra time, it was apparent that the Quakes were not finding scoring opportunities in the run of play and instead would need to earn a set-piece play in order to challenge for a match winner. That chance would come in the 120th minute, as Opara found the back of the net for the Earthquakes with his header. The Timbers stormed forward in search of an equalizer over three minutes of stoppage time, but their efforts to push the game to a penalty kick shootout were fruitless, and the Earthquakes players celebrated the victory before retreating to the locker room.
The final result: a 1-0 victory after extra time for the Earthquakes and a date with the Chicago Fire for entry into the U.S. Open Cup tournament. Given the strength of the Quakes line-up relative to the Timbers, San Jose needed to win this game as in indication they were righting a team that was lacking in apparent effort the past three weeks. With a game plan centered on a defense-first mentality, they succeeded greatly in that endeavor, with Weber and the defense producing a clean sheet over 120 minutes. However, from the point of view of a team that has lacked much in the way of scoring chances lately, the performance will do little to assuage fears that the team is not creative enough in the offensive third. The bright spot for the Quakes overall was the strong play on set pieces, notably the efforts of Opara and Lenhart as target men in these potentially potent scoring opportunities.
With the Earthquakes off this weekend before leaving for Vancouver on Tuesday for a midweek MLS game with the Whitecaps, the team will have time to rest from their 120+ minute marathon in Portland. Defensively, things are looking bright for the Quakes. And with the team formation reverting more to a 4-4-2 in recent weeks, the effort in training will need to focus on ways to breakdown opposing teams from a more defensive starting set-up. Winning games — even those outside of league play — should help build back team confidence and should aide in their play moving forward.
San Jose Earthquakes at Portland Timbers
U.S. Open Cup Play-in Match
May 3, 2011 – JELD-WEN Field
Scoring Summary: SJ – Ike Opara (Sam Cronin) 120.
Misconduct Summary: SJ – Brad Ring (caution) 7; POR – Ryan Pore (caution) 50; SJ – Ramiro Corrales (caution) 62; SJ – Sam Cronin (caution) 80; SJ – Ryan Johnson (caution) 91+; SJ – Steven Lenhart (caution) 104; POR – James Marcelin (caution) ; SJ – Ike Opara (caution) 120.
Portland Timbers – Troy Perkins, Freddie Braun, Kevin Goldthwaite (Mamadou Danso 98), David Horst, Steve Purdy, Sal Zizzo (Darlington Nagbe 111), James Marcelin, Adam Moffat, Rodrigo Lopez (Jeremy Hall 110), Ryan Pore, Spencer Thompson.
Statistics: Shots: 8; Shots on Goal: 3; Saves: 3; Fouls: 22; Offsides: 2; Corners: 6.
San Jose Earthquakes – Andrew Weber, Steven Beitashour, Bobby Burling, Ike Opara, Ramiro Corrales, Khari Stephenson (Steven Lenhart 83), Sam Cronin, Brad Ring, Bobby Convey (Justin Morrow 94), Ryan Johnson (Ellis McLoughlin 111), Chris Wondolowski.
Statistics: Shots: 9; Shots on Goal: 4; Saves: 3; Fouls: 23; Offsides: 0; Corners: 7.