Khari Stephenson scored twice, Atiba Harris added another goal 20 minutes from time, and the San Jose Earthquakes beat the Houston Dynamo 3-0 in front of a sold out Buck Shaw Stadium. Jon Busch had a stellar game in goal for San Jose to preserve the shutout, his fourth of the season. With the win, the Earthquakes improve to 3-4-4 and 13 points, good for seventh in the West. Houston's loss drops the team to 5-7-2 and keeps them at 17 points, still fourth in the East.
"The first half was a bit slow, but when we started the second half we played with energy and moved the ball well," said Earthquakes Head Coach Mark Watson. "That’s nice to see – that’s a good quality for a team to have is if you start slow, to find your way through the game and end up with a very good performance."
Indeed, San Jose put up a strong showing in the second half to cap a solid all around performance. With the loss of star striker Chris Wondolowski to World Cup duty, questions remained about where the goals would come from for the team. This result will quell many of those concerns for now.
"Everybody tonight brought their A-game," said Busch. "We were dangerous offensively and we were tough to break down defensively. Even thought we were up, we weren't completely happy with that first half, but we knew we could play better and I think we proved that in the second half."
There were plenty of ready-made story lines just with the Quakes' starting lineup. Steven Lenhart made his first start since spraining his MCL in a 2-1 loss to New England back on March 29, and Yannick Djaló, who had missed every game since straining his groin early against Vancouver on May 3, started alongside the blonde striker. One notable omission from the starting 11 was Clarence Goodson. Goodson, fresh off the disappointment of being left off of the final 23 man roster for the Men's National Team, was given the night off by coach Watson. In place of Goodson, defender Shaun Francis made his second consecutive start, sliding side back Jordan Stewart into a central defending position.
Much of the first half was defensively dominated on both sides. Neither team registered a shot until the 16th minute, and even then Houston's Servando Carrasco fired well over the net from the edge of the box. Much of the danger for San Jose came from Djaló, who did well to pick up the ball in the middle of the field and make dangerous probing runs toward the defense. Houston found the most joy from attacking the right side of the Earthquakes defense.
The Dynamo did have their best chances of the first half (and the game) with headers from the attacking left. Twice in the first half, Houston sent in crosses from the right that found players free on the back left post. In the 29th minute that player was Warren Creavalle, whose headed effort off of an Omar Cummings cross was saved expertly by a diving Busch, who pushed it out for a corner.
Shortly after, in the 33rd minute, Dynamo forward Will Bruin had his chance on a near identical play. This time the crosser was Carrasco, and you would have bet the house that Bruin would have finished off the chance. Again, Busch stepped in to parry the header. The rebound fell right back to Bruin, but Busch was up to the task and smothered the resulting toe poke.
Watson had high praise for Busch's play in the first half. "Those saves kept us in the game," the coach remarked. "As much as it was a good performance, ultimately Jon Busch gave us the opportunity to have that kind of performance."
The Earthquakes responded almost right away to their 'keeper's contributions. In the 38th minute, San Jose broke the deadlock. In a bizarre play that is rarely seen in soccer these days, Houston goalkeeper Tally Hall was whistled for picking up a ball passed directly to him from a teammate. Indeed, center back David Horst played the ball to his keeper under pressure from Lenhart. Referee Geoff Gamble correctly called for the indirect free kick inside the penalty area.
On the ensuing spot kick, Houston covered nearly the entire goal line with defenders in an effort to prevent the goal. San Jose's Shea Salinas touched the ball back to Stephenson, who fired hard and low toward the far left post. His shot found a seam and reached side netting for his first goal of the season and a 1-0 lead for the Quakes.
"There was definitely some luck on that one," said Stephenson after the game. "The ball ended up going where no one was. But it went in, it's a goal, and it ended up being the game winner."
After half, it took Stephenson and the Quakes just under 13 minutes to double their advantage with a bit of controversy involved. In the 57th minute, Djaló led Lenhart with a pass, and the big striker had to slide to the ground to touch the ball away from Houston defender Corey Ashe. Dynamo center back Jermaine Taylor rushed in to clear the ball, and as Lenhart was getting up to try and challenge, Ashe got in his way and forced him back to the ground. It was a tough call, as Taylor would have likely cleared no matter what. But Gamble still pointed to the spot, much to Houston's chagrin. Stephenson coolly converted the following penalty with a low shot down the middle for the 2-0 scoreline.
With the Dynamo forced to attack, San Jose got the insurance goal in the 70th minute. Shaun Francis played a first-time ball from inside his own half upfield and over the heads of the Dynamo defense. Harris recognized this first for San Jose, and sprinted towards the ball, forcing Hall to come off his line. Harris was able to head the ball over the onrushing Hall towards goal. The initial header went off the upright, but Harris chased it down and had the easy tap-in rebound for his first goal of the season.
"It was all about anticipation," Harris said of his goal. "I saw that the ball went back to Shaun. The only option he had was to hit it over the top, so I kind of cheated a little bit. The keeper was out of his box, and there was no way he was going to handle it, so I figured I could outjump him."
The goal was a huge relief for Harris, whose last goal came almost 11 months ago when he played for the Colorado Rapids. More importantly, it put the game out of reach. Houston had a couple more chances near the end, with Cummings firing just wide, and Bruin forcing another diving save out of Busch with an effort from the top of the area.
But this night belonged to San Jose. Following the final whistle, the Earthquakes players were a jovial bunch. Certainly the team was happy to have some big names healthy, but the performance itself had everyone in a good mood. Certainly this is a result that the Quakes will look to build on.
"I think the past few games we've been creating more chances going forward," said Harris of the team's play. "Defensively I think we've been solid. So hopefully we build on it, pick up a few results, and go on a little run."
San Jose would love to do just that. This result puts them just four points out of a playoff spot. But now the Quakes go on the road for two games, to FC Dallas and Toronto FC. The veterans on the team know that the work is just beginning.
"There were a lot of positives tonight - a clean sheet, three goals, a lot of dangerous opportunities," said Busch. "We have to take the positives from that game, look at the bad moments and learn from those mistakes going forward."