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Quakes, Dynamo all square in scoreless exhibition

SAN FRANCISCO — The San Jose Earthquakes and the Houston Dynamo played to a scoreless draw Wednesday night at Kezar Stadium in a preseason match that more resembled a post-last call St. Patrick’s Day bar brawl than a finely tuned soccer affair. The head referee was very conservative with his whistle, as numerous fouls that might otherwise be expected in an MLS regular season game, were waved off.

The physical nature of the game was reminiscent of the last time these two teams met at Kezar back in 2008 — a game made memorable by the late sending off of the Dynamo’s Brian Ching. No red cards were produced this time around, with surprisingly only two yellows issued all game. However, we did get one dismissal, as Houston coach Dominic Kinnear was ejected in the second half for dissent.

“The physical play really disrupted the flow of the game for both teams at times,” remarked Quakes midfielder Chris Wondolowski after the game. “It seemed that we were spending a lot of time just trying to get the ball back in play from set pieces.”

“I thought we managed the game well,” San Jose head coach Frank Yallop explained in his post game press conference. “If it was going to be physical, we knew we could match up with them. It was a good tough game.”

On a positive note, by keeping the Dynamo from finding the back of the net, the Earthquakes have run their shutout streak to four games. “We want to be difficult to break down in defense, and I think that shows in the results we are getting,” said Quakes defender Jason Hernandez. “Four clean sheets in a row, and Joe (Cannon) hasn’t faced many shots in those games. Those are the results you want to have heading into the season.”

The game started innocently enough, as both teams probed forward with possession without finding many openings in the opposing defenses. San Jose created the first scoring chance in the 12th minute after forward Ryan Johnson shuck off defender with some nice footwork before sending a cross to the far post for defender Chris Leitch. The ball was expertly deflected out for a corner kick just as Leitch rose to meet the ball.

Houston had a chance to go ahead in the 14th minute after an Eddie Robinson throw-in from the left flank was flicked on by forward Cam Weaver in the direction of Corey Ashe. The Quakes' Joey Gjertsen tracked back on defense to prevent Ashe from getting the shot off toward goal.

“The coaching staff has worked really hard with the players on our shape and defensive posture,” said Yallop when asked about the complete defensive effort from his players. “I think we are very difficult to break down. Our forwards and wide midfielders are working hard to keep our opponents out of our defending half. It makes a difference. It makes it easier for us to defend as a unit, and from that we were able to spring forward on the break.”

Gjertsen and Bobby Convey were very active on both sides of the ball throughout the first half, as they covered considerable ground down both sidelines. In the 31st minute, Convey played give-and-go with center midfielder Javier Robles as he found space deep in Houston territory. He whipped in a perfect cross to Johnson on the near post, but he could only push the ball wide of the post as he lost footing on the loose turf.

A minute later, the Earthquakes were on the break again, with Convey and Johnson working together to advance the ball into the Dynamo half. However, with Convey pulled down, and the referee swallowing his whistle, the play fizzled out before a meaningful shot on goal could be produced.

In the 36th minute, a sliding tackle from Hernandez dispossessed Houston’s Luis Angel Landin near midfield and the break was on. The Quakes had a 5-on-4 advantage as they raced toward goal, but some poor passing let the Dynamo defenders recover and clear away the danger.

Just before the halftime whistle, the tone of the game became much testier. After an overlapping run from Leitch was ended by a push from Landin — and no call from the official — the two shared unpleasantries as play continued down the pitch. In an off-the-ball confrontation, Landin appeared to fall victim to some baiting from Leitch, and was promptly issued a yellow card for his dissent.

But there was time for Houston to try for the lead, as they pressed forward on a 45th minute corner kick. Mike Chabala sent in a laser of a cross that midfielder Geoff Cameron met above his marking defender. The ball flashed just over the crossbar, and proved to be as close to scoring as the Dynamo would get all night long.

Halftime provided both teams a chance to make numerous line-up changes, with the Earthquakes swapping out everyone but Hernandez and Bobby Burling in the center of defense. Simon Elliott, a late first half substitute for the injured Brad Ring, stayed on to start the second 45. Ring had to leave the game after suffering a left hamstring strain, an injury is expected to require at least a week of recovery time.

In the 48th minute, the Earthquakes earned a free kick 25 yards from goal after Elliott was taken down hard by Richard Mulrooney. Cornell Glen took the free kick, but bent it just over the goal. Elliot had his leg wrapped up after the hard foul, but had to exit the game 10 minutes later for midfielder Antonio Ribeiro.

“I wanted to keep playing to see if it would loosen up a bit, but it didn’t,” explained Elliott of his injury. “He got his studs right in my thigh, so that’s going to leave a mark.” After the game he described the injury as a contusion, and he expects to be back in training ahead of this weekend.

The first 15 minutes of the second half was filled with physical play that went unpunished by the referee. Promising runs in the attacking third from Glen and Omar Jassey were unrewarded after suspect defending from the Dynamo. The frustration was clearly evident from Glen, as he twice got into pushing matches with Mulrooney. He earned a yellow card for his efforts after the second incident.

In the 63rd minute, the Quakes finally realized their first true scoring opportunity of the night. After a corner kick from Jassey was cleared beyond the area, Hernandez met the ball and delivered a perfect pass toward the far post for Wondolowski. He had time to set himself for the volley attempt, but could only push his shot wide of goal.

“I lined up that shot and should have gotten it on frame, so I was disappointed to miss that,” said Wondolowski, before adding, “At least it was just in the preseason.”

In the 65th minute, it appeared the Earthquakes would finally get on the scoreboard after Quincy Amarikwa stole the ball from a Houston defender 35 yards out and then raced toward goal. He tried to bend the ball around goalkeeper Pat Onstad toward the far post, but the netminder dove out and made a finger tip save. Glen closed in on the loose ball, but somehow managed to scuff his shot, where it skipped toward Wondolowski. From a tight angle, Wondo tried to get a foot on the ball, but he could only push the ball out for a goal kick.

“It’s always a battle when you play a good team, you know its going to get physical against those guys,” Wondolowki said, as he tried to focus on the positive. “It was great to get the zero, though I should have got that goal tonight.”

In the 79th minute, after Glen earned a free kick 25 yards from goal, Ramon Sanchez provided the last scoring opportunity of the night for the Quakes. He drove the kick through the Dynamo defensive wall, where the ball took a deflection that evaded goalkeeper Onstad, before skipping just wide of the post.

Both teams did little offensively over the final 10 minutes of the match, and the final score was 0-0. This wasn’t soccer at its best, but the shutout did highlight the focus the Earthquakes have put on being a more complete defensive team in 2010.

“It was a good result. Tonight I didn’t have to do much,” said goalkeeper Joe Cannon after a match where he didn’t face a single shot on goal. “Our offense had a couple good chances, we missed an open goal or two, but Pat (Onstad) made a couple of great saves. Our guys in the back four, especially Hernandez and Burling, neutralized those guys all night.”

Along with Cannon, Hernandez and Burling were the only Quakes to go the full 90 minutes. Playing as a solid twosome in the center of defense, they exemplified the intentions of the coaching staff to stress improvement on their shaky defensive performances from last season.

“We have guys that can interchange in the center of defense,” said Hernandez. “We have focused on keeping our shape in defense no matter who is playing. “In the first half, Houston played Landin and Weaver up front, so we knew those guys were not going to try to get behind us and beat us in a foot race. They wanted to play in front of us, so we needed to keep our shape. We made sure to challenge them in the air and keep tucked in behind them while keeping an eye on their runners. I don’t think they were ever that dangerous in the half.”

Keeping the opponent from creating scoring opportunities doesn’t just lay with the back four defenders. It requires the midfielders to make it as hard a possible for the opposing team to carry possession into Quakes territory.

“After last season, a lot of guys and the coaching staff were disappointed,” commented central midfielder Simon Elliott. “You can’t bury your head in the sand and pretend that there weren’t any problems. We have addressed those, especially in defense. We are much sharper defensively as a team, not just in the back four, we are defending from the front and everyone is working hard. When we do that well, it creates opportunities for us offensively. We hope to carry these good results in the preseason to the regular season.”

It wasn’t all defense on the night, as the Quakes did show some glimpses of a promising offensive mindset. While often limited by the overtly physical nature of the game as allowed by the referee, players such as Joey Gjertsen and Javier Robles proved very adept at controlling possession and leading the ball forward into the attacking third.

“I think Gjertsen and Robles are good soccer players,” said Yallop as he explained the positive performances he saw in the match. “The more good soccer players you can get on your squad, the better style of soccer you can play. I think it showed tonight, I thought we dictated things in the first half, we set the pace of the game and had some good scoring chances because we can handle the ball and move it around very well. I think it because of those guys, along with Convey and Alvarez, we moved the ball around really well.”

Still, this was a scoreless draw, with little in the way of highlight reel action. Perhaps the game this Saturday against the Portland Timbers will better showcase the full talents of the Earthquakes in this preseason. So we’ll leave it up to the defensive captain and most valuable player of the game to give us the final word on this match with the Dynamo.

“I haven’t been this excited for a season to start in my three years here,” said Jason Hernandez. “I’m really glad to see how things are coming along for us.”

Post Game Notes: Rookie defender Ike Opara is currently back in North Carolina for school, but Yallop did suggest that we might see him sooner than later. “Ike Opara has a chance to be in the first game of the season,” Yallop let on during his post game comments • • • While many players shared their thoughts on the ongoing CBA discussions between the players and the league,  Yallop again stated that he is unaffected by the proceedings. When asked if preseason training was being disrupted by the constantly growing public war of words between the two negotiating sides, he shared, “Not really, I just go on with my job and I’ll wait for an outcome.” • • • For players and coaches, the recently completed trip to England was a great chance to focus as a team without the distractions of being at home. For Chris Wondolowski, it was even better than that: “It was wonderful. It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip to be able to see a couple games. I got out to the Champions League match with Arsenal and a Premier League game with Tottenham, something I will always remember for the rest of my life. Also, to see Tottenham practice, and be able to take advantage of their training facilities was great for me. To see some of the guys you watch on TV and then get to play against them was pretty cool.”

• • •

San Jose Earthquakes vs. Houston Dynamo
March 17, 2010 – Kezar Stadium

Attendance: 2,116

Scoring Summary: None

Misconduct Summary: HOU – Luis Angel Landin (caution) 42; SJ – Cornell Glen (caution) 78;

San Jose Earthquakes: -- Joe Cannon, Chris Leitch (Steven Beitashour 46), Jason Hernandez, Bobby Burling, Ramiro Corrales (Justin Morrow 46), Joey Gjertsen (Omar Jessey 46), Brad Ring (Simon Elliott 27, Antonio Ribeiro 58), Javier Robles (Ramon Sanchez 46), Bobby Convey (Chris Wondolowski 46), Ryan Johnson (Cornell Glen 46), Arturo Alvarez (Quincy Amarikwa 46).

Statistics:  Shots 7; Shots on Goal 4; Saves 0; Fouls 13; Offside 1; Corner Kicks 6.

Houston Dynamo: -- Pat Onstad, Craig Waibel (Erik Ustruck 46), Bobby Boswell (Ryan Cochrane 46), Eddie Robinson (Andrew Hainault 71), Mike Chabala (Wade Barrett 46), Danny Cruz (Brian Mullan 46), Adrian Serioux (Richard Mulrooney 46), Geoff Cameron (Sammy Appiah 64), Corey Ashe (Francisco Navas Cobo 46), Cam Weaver (Dominic Oduro 46), Luis Angel Landin.

Statistics:  Shots 5; Shots on Goal 0; Saves 4; Fouls 7; Offside 5; Corner Kicks 6.