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San Jose Earthquakes and Columbus Crew battle to scoreless draw in possible MLS Cup playoff preview

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The San Jose Earthquakes earned a valuable point on the road in a scoreless draw against the Columbus Crew in no small part due to the stellar perfomance from Quakes goalkeeper Jon Busch. Photo: Howard C. Smith, isiphotos.com

The San Jose Earthquakes arrived in Ohio to face the Columbus Crew knowing that they couldn’t repeat their performance from midweek in a 3-0 loss to the Chicago Fire. Not with teams below them in the MLS standings ready to make a move on the Quakes precarious playoff qualification position. Not after leaving the field Wednesday night cursing the skies and themselves for the often listless play that looked more reminiscent of the Quakes of the past two seasons. And certainly not when afforded the opportunity to measure up against an opponent that may likely be their first round foe in the MLS Cup playoffs should they stave off the likes of Kansas City, Toronto, and Chicago over the last two weeks of the regular season.

So when head coach Frank Yallop announced his starting line-up for the match against the Crew, a few eyebrows were raised among the Quakes faithful. Relegated to the bench were midweek starters Chris Leitch, Sam Cronin, and most surprisingly Geovanni. While understandable that modifications to the starting XI were in order given that the Earthquakes were playing their third game in eight days, the exclusion of the team’s designated player seemed rather rash. Brought to San Jose with such fanfare just six weeks ago, the Brazilian playmaker was identified as being the last piece of the puzzle in making the Quakes a legitimate playoff contender.

However, the new and fresher line-up did go into the match against the Eastern Conference leaders and make a return to the style of the soccer that has proven so successful for the Quakes on the road all season long. Facing a team led by the creative Guillermo Barros Schelotto in the midfield, San Jose inserted defensive minded rookie midfielder Brad Ring to mark the talented Argentine and disrupt his ability to distribute the ball. Riding the strength of such an organized defense and benefitting from the acrobatics of goalkeeper Jon Busch, the Earthquakes earned a hard fought scoreless draw against the Crew. With the point earned, the Quakes righted their result against Chicago and reached the proverbial playoff qualification level of 40 points in the MLS standings.

All day leading up to the match, rain fell on the field at Crew Stadium making the field slick and often treacherous. Add in temperatures more suitable to a late winter in Ohio, and the conditions were far from ideal for the mistake-free game the Earthquakes would need to beat the two-time defending Supporters Shield holders. And for the first ten minutes of the match, it was Columbus that looked right at home among the elements.

In the 5th minute, a well slotted pass from Schelotto found the fleet of foot midfielder Eddie Gaven with space near the right byline. The U.S. National Team part-timer drove into the penalty area before cutting the ball back to the foot of forward Steven Lenhart. His shot attempt was deflected wide right, but indicated that the defense would need to be aware of every touch the shaggy blond striker took near the Quakes goal.

A minute later, the Crew were on the move again, after a fine takedown from San Jose’s Eduardo, making his first regular season start in the club’s 26th match of the season, was subsequently squandered away to Schelotto. The former Boca Juniors standout took the ball right into the heart of the Quakes midfield before laying a well weighted pass into the path of Lenhart. He blasted a fine shot from just outside the 18 that Busch did well to parry away. Fortunately for the Quakes, Bobby Convey, playing as a left back instead of his regular winger position, beat Schelotto to the loose ball and made the required clearance.

The respite for the defense was short lived, when in the 7th minute Lenhart collected the ball near midfield and directed a cross field pass into space for Crew midfielder Emmanuel Ekpo to latch onto. The speedy Nigerian outraced Convey into the area and took aim right at Busch. The ex-Columbus ‘keeper was up to the challenge and made the nice catch save.

Perhaps gaining confidence from the defensive success of keeping the Crew off the scoreboard in those opening ten minutes, or simply from knowing that they couldn’t sit back and absorb that level of pressure all night long, the Earthquakes finally started to make a move into their attacking third.

In the 10th minute, Ryan Johnson — playing in the left midfielder position normally reserved for Convey, but making the start to help create badly needed offensive — pressured the Crew defenders into a turnover that yielded him the ball and space down the left wing. His cross into the box was too high for Eduardo and surprise starter Scott Sealy, but was well tracked down by the right winger, Chris Wondolowski. The Quakes leading scorer in 2010 returned the errant cross back into the mix, but unfortunately for him right into the hands of Crew goalkeeper William Hesmer.

Three minutes later, the Earthquakes were again on offense where they earned a corner kick — the first of the game, only because the referees seemed oblivious to the rules of out-of-bounds to that point in the game — and filled the area looking for a scoring opportunity off the set piece. Perhaps fed by the residual anger of Wednesday’s loss to the Fire, the Quakes treated their pre-kick positioning more like an Australian Rules Football scrum and jostled heavily with their Columbus markers. After referee Jorge Gonzalez restored order, Brandon McDonald attempted to head in the corner kick from Convey, with Lenhart tighter on his back then his long-sleeved black-and-blue #14 jersey, but flashed the ball wide of the near post.

From that moment forward it was “game on” for San Jose and Columbus, as both teams settled in for what would eventually prove to be a somewhat sloppy, but hard fought workman-like MLS game. With the Earthquakes looking to earn something positive from the first of two straight road games, and the Crew not wanting to fall behind Eastern Conference rivals New York in the chase for the #1 seed in the east, neither club would back down over the next seventy-five minutes and change.

Columbus was next to nearly break through, as in the 17th minute California native Frankie Hejduk found himself in the attacking third with a chance to feed the ball in front of goal. The MLS ‘96er flashed a cross just in front of the Quakes goal that was expertly cleared over the bar for a Crew corner kick. Schelotto trotted to the corner flag to deliver a ball that just eluded the near-post run of defender Chad Marshall before settling in on the foot of midfielder Kevin Burns at the edge of the six-yard box. The opportunity went lacking for the former USL-1 star as he volleyed the ball harmlessly over the crossbar.

Quickly counterattacking on the ensuing goal kick — a key element to the Quakes strategy all evening long — Wondolowski found Eduardo on the right wing with only one defender to beat. Employing a bit of samba, the hulking Brazilian touched the ball to the byline before sending an inviting ball into the area that was cleared back in his direction. Wondolowski smartly applied pressure to the rebound, affecting its path to the feet of the on-charging Tim Ward who delivered a pass along the ground to Johnson at the top of the area. Pushing the ball toward the byline and away from defender Hejduk, the Jamaican International chipped the ball just over the head of Eduardo in front of goal. Wondolowski was again ready to collect ball, and he wisely passed back to Ward. This time the recipient of the ex-Fire defender’s cross was Ring, whose one-timed blast deflected back upfield and ended the Quakes first sustained attack of the night.

In the 22nd minute, the Quakes finally created a shot on goal — an effort that seemed inevitable in that earlier sequence, but went missing — when Wondolowski unleashed a corker from distance that forced Hesmer into making a nice catch save. With Eduardo bearing down on him in case he spilled the wet ball on a rebound, the Crew ‘keeper made sure to hold on tight.

In the 25th minute, it was Columbus who should have taken the early one goal advantage. With Gaven holding possession of the ball deep in the left corner of the Quakes defensive zone, he rightly back-passed to Shaun Francis, who was offering help up the sideline. The crafty defender — not the MLS_Insider fans rely on for in depth coverage from the league’s headquarters in downtown Manhattan — delivered a sublime cross right to the head of Lenhart. Having worked his way behind the defense, the former Southern California Seahorse inexplicably nodded the ball wide of the target with just the flat-footed Busch to beat.

The home crowd groaned in disapproval at the Lenhart miss, and they would get a chance to repeat the gesture often during the match. In fact, just five minutes later, Lenhart would again miss with a shot, this time wide of the right post, after some heavy pressure from Schelotto created the scoring opportunity. The just-turned 24-year old would go on to have a nightmare of an evening trying to score on the Earthquakes.

In the 33rd minute, McDonald nearly gifted the Crew a goal with a sloppy clearance attempt that went back over his head and into the path of the onrushing Lenhart. Sensing trouble, defender Jason Hernandez sprinted back toward the area to cut off Lenhart and slide tackle the ball away to safety. The sequence was not pretty, but it did exemplify the collaborative effort of the Quakes defense that would be crucial in extending the clean sheet for the match.

The tilt of the match was definitely in the favor of Columbus as the two teams entered the 36th minute. With the Quakes pushing hard on a counterattack, Gaven fought off Ring near the center line and carried the ball directly toward goal. As he approached the top of the area, he spied an opening and flashed a well-struck ball wide of the far post. If the shot had been on target, Busch would have been hard-pressed to make a routine save.

In the 38th minute, perhaps frustrated by the Quakes inability to muster a run at goal, midfielder Johnson tussled with intent with his counterpart midfielder Ekpo, clearly fouling the 22-year old while claiming he was elbowed. Gonzalez blew the whistle in favor of Columbus, and Johnson wrongly charged the referee in defiance of the call. Not interested in have a deep and meaningful conversation with the Jamaican, the referee brandished his shiny yellow card for the first time in the match as punishment for Johnson’s dissent.

The next couple of possessions went the Earthquakes way — with the assistance of some odd refereeing decisions, but never did they threaten the Crew goal. Instead, the powerful and effective central defensive pairing of Marshall and Andy Iro yielded little space for the Quakes forwards to test Hesmer in goal. While Columbus themselves were going on nearly 3 and a half home games without a score, they certainly didn’t appear to be in any danger of giving a goal up the other way.

In the 42nd minute, the Crew had one last chance in the first half to break the scoreless tie. After earning a corner kick — met with sarcastic applause from a home crowd grown tired of referee miscalls — Schelotto delivered a good ball into the mix that was punched away by Busch and eventually cleared upfield. The Earthquakes spent the remainder of the half pinned down on defense, but didn’t yield another scoring opportunity before hearing the double-trill of the half-time whistle.

After forty-five minutes of soccer, it was clear that the Earthquakes had returned to their defend-and-counterattack tactical plan that had thus far yielded 18 points away from Buck Shaw Stadium. Ring and a very quiet Khari Stephenson in the center of midfield were focusing more on their defensive responsibilities, while Eduardo expertly took on the role of post-up forward. His gentle touch on incoming aerial passes was instrumental in initiating many a Quakes attack. Unfortunately, he wasn’t getting enough help from his striking partner Sealy in sustaining possession toward their attacking third. Wondlowski and Johnson were doing enough on both sides of the ball, which subsequently left them collecting the ball deep in the San Jose end with a long path forward against a resolute Crew midfield. And even when the Earthquakes did possess the ball near the Crew area, the inability to find their finishing touch was reflected in the zero on the scoreboard.

The second half starting off in much the same fashion as the first half had ended. The Crew were quicker out of the gate, and nearly made the Quakes pay for a defensive breakdown in the 48th minute. After a back pass to McDonald was further pushed toward his goalkeeper, Lenhart raced in to challenge the ball just ahead of Busch’s clearance. If not for the astute reaction from the onrushing ‘keeper on the lightly weighted pass, Lenhart could easily have atoned for his series of first-half missed shots on goal.

In the 50th minute the Earthquakes intercepted possession in their half and put that ball on Sealy’s foot. He quickly turned and passed the ball to Ring near the midfield stripe, where he found space to dribble the ball into the Crew half. A perfectly weighted pass to Eduardo on the right side allowed the Brazilian striker to cut back at the top of the area and take a shot at the target. Unfortunately, the pink-accented breast-cancer awareness commemorative Jabulani ball leapt off his left foot and flashed just wide of the near post.

In the 54th minute, the Crew mustered a good attack near the area, but couldn’t find space to get a shot off. Instead, the ball eventually found its way to the advancing defender Francis, who tried his luck from distance and fired high and wide of the target. The blast to the far end of the north side Crew Stadium concert stage looked suspiciously similar to that of a defender’s clearance.

Five minutes later, Columbus again pressed forward in attack. Gaven tried his best to create space against a quickly closing Ward on the left flank, but was unable to get off a crossing pass. The bounding ball eventually found Ekpo with Convey to beat on the opposite side of the field, but he also was unable to pick out a target in the area. Both cases showed the Quakes at their best defusing the Crew offensive efforts with resolute defending.

With over two-thirds of the match complete and San Jose mustering very little on their second half counterattacks, Yallop went to his bench to bring in Geovanni for fellow Brazilian Eduardo. Unfortunately the two countrymen would not see the field together — as in prior games they seemed to work very well as an attacking pair — but the inclusion of the Quakes DP seemed the right call in an effort to spark an otherwise moribund offense. Especially with Stephenson continuing to be ineffective past the center line, the rested Geovanni had the opportunity to disrupt the Crew midfield and perhaps play provider to the Quakes wingers.

As the match entered the 70th minute, the Quakes built up their best scoring chance of the night starting with a throw-in near midfield. A sequence that saw Convey touch the ball to Stephenson, who flicked it to Johnson, who retuned it to Convey, and then sent the ball forward to Sealy seemed dead in the water when the ball deflected toward the sideline. But Johnson, perhaps anticipating the pass, caught up to the ball and tip-toed the paint with possession toward the left corner flag. Cutting a perfect cross into the area, Johnson delivered the ball to the head of Wondolowski who powered the shot to the near upper corner of the goal mouth. For a split second it appeared the Quakes would take a 1-nil lead, but Hesmer reflexively reached back to claw the ball just over the crossbar for a corner kick.

In the 72nd minute, it was time for Busch to one up his Columbus counterpart with his own Save-of-the-week quality stop on a sure Crew goal. With Schelotto playing provider from the near the center circle, Lenhart found space just behind the Quakes defense with just the ‘keeper to beat. The now verifiably cursed-on-the-night striker shook off McDonald at the top of the area and sent a low worm-burner toward the far post. Unfortunately for Lenhart, his sure goal was blocked wide of the goal by the left leg of Busch, who appeared to do his best Antti Niemi — the former Chicago Blackhawks and current San Jose Sharks netminder — impression with the hockey-styled kick save and a beauty. Lenhart could only smile as he walked away rubbing his head in disbelief.

The Earthquakes good fortune was again required in the 75th minute after the Crew earned a corner kick from a deflected Schelotto cross. The Argentine lined up the kick and found a rising Marshall at the back post. His powerful header seemed destined to find the netting, but Busch appeared to reach back and somehow guide the ball just over the crossbar. With the scoreless tie preserving save, Busch was now ahead of Hesmer in the amazing saves scoreline 2-1.

The Crew continued to dominate the time of possession statistic in the second half, but the two saves from Busch seemed to take the wind out of their sails for a short spell. In need of an offensive boost, coach Robert Warzycha introduced electric midfielder Robbie Rogers in the 81st minute for the tiring Gaven. For Rogers, it was a return to the field after a two month absence due to arthroscopic surgery on his left knee back in August. Looking a bit rusty from the long layoff, Warzycha will want the talented U.S. National Teamer to return to full effectiveness ahead of the MLS Cup playoffs, so there was no time like the present to get him meaningful game experience.

In the 83rd minute, the Earthquakes finally broke a long spell of offensive futility when Johnson maneuvered clear of the defense to take a crack at goal. Unfortunately his strike was comfortably handled by Hesmer, who quickly initiated a counterattack with an outlet ball to second half substitute Emilio Renteria down the right side of the field. The Venezuelan expertly carried the ball nearly the length of the pitch before sending a cross toward the box. Catching Busch off his line and too far forward, the cross was nearly a shot on goal when Ward stepped in with an emergency clearance.

Three minutes later, Renteria gave his best Lenhart impersonation when he flashed an open header past the near post for a Quakes goal kick. With the match approaching stoppage time, Yallop brought in Cronin for Sealy before the restart as he modified the tactical formation in an effort to preserve the scoreless tie.

As the seconds counted away in Columbus, the canary-yellow kitted club made one last attempt to earn their first home win in their last four attempts at Crew Stadium. In the 91st minute, Rogers found room to deliver a fabulous cross to the far post for an awaiting Renteria. His flash header went back across the goal mouth, beyond the reach of the diminutive Busch, and just wide of the far post. The sequence was the end of a long series of possession by the Crew, but would mark their last best chance to score in the match. After a late free kick by the Quakes went wanting, and a final-kick corner delivery yielded nothing, the final whistle blew on the scoreless draw.

With the draw, the Earthquakes extended their margin on the eighth and final MLS playoff position over the Kansas City Wizards to seven points with four games remaining. Given that the two teams meet in the last game of the season, the road point was a positive step toward earning a playoff berth ahead of that October 23rd match at CommunityAmerica Ballpark. The Quakes also improved their impressive road record to 3-1-2 against Eastern Conference opponents and 5-4-4 overall. Their total points haul of 40 so far has proven to be sufficient in seasons past to make the postseason, but San Jose can leave no doubt on their qualification with another result against league cellar dweller DC United this Saturday at RFK Stadium. Even a point out of that contest will set the Quakes up nicely to perhaps clinch a postseason berth in the following weekend’s home match against Houston.

• • •

San Jose Earthquakes (11-8-7) vs. Columbus Crew (13-7-7)October 4, 2010 – Crew Stadium
Attendance: 10,867

Scoring Summary: None

Misconduct Summary: SJ – Ryan Johnson (caution) 38.

San Jose Earthquakes – Jon Busch, Tim Ward, Jason Hernandez, Brandon McDonald, Bobby Convey, Chris Wondolowski, Brad Ring, Khari Stephenson, Ryan Johnson, Scott Sealy (Sam Cronin 87), Eduardo (Geovanni 69).

Statistics: Shots: 10; Shots on Goal: 3; Saves: 4; Fouls: 5; Offsides: 1; Corners: 3.

Columbus Crew William Hesmer, Frankie Hejduk, Chad Marshall, Andy Iro, Shaun Francis, Emmanuel Ekpo (Emilio Renteria 66), Brian Carroll, Kevin Burns, Eddie Gaven (Robbie Rogers 81), Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Steven Lenhart (Andres Mendoza 84).

Statistics: Shots: 17; Shots on Goal: 4; Saves: 3; Fouls: 15; Offsides: 3; Corners: 7.