For only the second time all season, the San Jose Earthquakes collected a victory on the road as two early goals from Steven Lenhart was enough to dispatch of Real Salt Lake 2-1 in front of 20504 at Rio Tinto Stadium.
"Steven was fantastic tonight," said interim head coach Mark Watson. "The goals were excellent. He worked hard, he battled for everything, Lenny always gives you 100 percent and it was no different tonight."
The victory not only was important in the Quakes quest to make the MLS playoffs, as they now sit 4 points behind 5th place Colorado Rapids in the race for the last qualifying spot in the Western Conference, but it also marked an important milestone for the club. Since joining MLS in its inaugural 1996 season, San Jose has earned 200 regular season victories.
"We knew it was going to be a tough night," said Watson, "but I thought the way we approached the game and the effort and commitment that our players put in was fantastic."
The Earthquakes (11-11-8) avoided a season sweep at the hands of RSL (14-10-6) with the hard-fought 2-1 win. In two previous wins against the Quakes in 2013, Salt Lake had outscored the San Jose 5-0. This was in stark contrast to 2012 when, during their Supporters' Shield winning campaign, the Earthquakes won three games against RSL by a combined score of 10-2.
"Our mental confidence is great right now," said midfielder Sam Cronin. "Winning here in Salt Lake is tough so we're really pleased with the three points."
The Earthquakes have four more games on their schedule in which to reach the Western Conference top-five and qualify for the postseason, starting with next Sunday's game at Chivas USA. Anything less than a win at RSL might have realistically shut down any thought of the club making the playoffs. Instead, the win keeps them mathematically alive going into the final stretch of the season.
"It was a big win for sure," said Watson. "Just looking at the standings and the games remaining, we knew we had to be just about perfect the rest of the way."
Even perfection might not be enough for the Earthquakes to make the playoffs, but at least for one night, with franchise victory number 200 achieved, the team could celebrate a worthy win.
The visitors looked bright early, as the Quakes tried to match the home side for possession. After a quarter hour of effort, when RSL still managed to gain a nearly 2-to-1 advantage in holding onto the ball, San Jose retreated into a more defensive formation. Not by accident, the switch in tactics began to open up holes in the Salt Lake defense.
In the 18th minute, running a counterattack down the right flank, Cordell Cato found plenty of room to direct a cross into the area behind the retreating RSL defense. Angling in from the penalty spot, Lenhart connected with the pass and sharply headed it past a diving Nick Rimando to put San Jose up 1-0.
Real Salt Lake did not wait long to equalize, as on a corner kick in the 19th minute, Morales sneaked into space at the far post and one-timed a shot past Busch. The wide open Morales left a bevy of blue-shirted defenders looking at each other trying to assign blame.
But the Earthquakes did not hang their heads at RSL's goal, and retook the lead through a free kick opportunity in the 21st minute. As has been their proclivity this season, the Quakes lined up to take a quick restart on the set-piece chance. Shea Salinas scorched a ball into the mixer that Lenhart redirected past Rimando for his second goal of the game, and fourth goal of the season, to push San Jose back in front 2-1.
Down a goal again for the second time in just 3 minutes, Salt Lake pressed more into the attacking third, increasing its edge in possession over the last 30 minutes of the half to more than 4-to-1. However, the Quakes were content to stand strong defensively, soak up the pressure, and look for calculated forays forward.
In the 41st minute, Chris Wondolowski nearly made it a third goal for San Jose, but he couldn't keep his snap header below the crossbar. A speculative long-range effort from Cronin in the 44th minute was on target, but Rimando made a comfortable catch save.
On the stroke of halftime, RSL set-up for its seventh corner kick of the half. Already having allowed one goal from the corner, San Jose improved its defensive marking enough to clear the ball and preserve its 2-1 lead going into the locker room.
Much like the start of the first half, the Earthquakes came out after intermission with more intent on offense. A stunning save from Rimando in the 49th minute was all that separated Wondolowski and his upper corner-seeking header from extending San Jose's lead.
After an awkward sliding challenge on Olmes Garcia in the 67th minute, Clarence Goodson was shown yellow by referee Chris Penso. He appeared to pick up an injury on the tackle and was replaced by center back Jason Hernandez 3 minutes later.
The Earthquakes have collected 7 wins this season when going into the final 15 minutes of a match with the lead, but Real Salt Lake has scored a league-high 19 goals in that same time period. With the scoreboard reading 2-1 in favor of San Jose, one of those two trends was not going to survive to the final whistle.
Salt Lake brought in forward Robbie Findley for defender Carlos Salcedo in 79th minute hoping to spark its offense. The former U.S. national team striker made an almost immediate impact for RSL as in the 82nd minute he split the Earthquakes defense from a Morales feed, but the 2010 World Cup veteran sizzled his shot attempt into the side netting.
The hard-working Earthquakes brought every man behind the ball as the match entered 5 minutes of stoppage time. Goal scoring hero Lenhart was substituted out for Alan Gordon in the 91st minute as a way to slow down the game, but RSL continued its assault on the San Jose goal. On a goal kick in the 93rd minute, Busch picked up a yellow card for time wasting. It proved well worth it.
Real Salt Lake had one last chance on a corner kick in the 96th minute, but the delivery soared over the entire mix and out for a goal kick. Penso whistled the match over and the Earthquakes celebrated only their second road victory of the season. San Jose will hope to make it two in a row away from Buck Shaw Stadium when it faces Chivas USA next Sunday evening at the StubHub Center.