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San Jose Earthquakes defeat Colorado Rapids 1-0 in MLS Central Coast Challenge

The new pavilion at Alex G. Spanos Stadium was near capacity to watch the San Jose Earthquakes defeat the Colorado Rapids 1-0 in the 2011 MLS Central Coast Challenge. Photo: Robert Jonas, centerlinesoccer.com.

(San Luis Obispo, CA) Behind the resolute goalkeeping of Jon Busch and a converted penalty kick from Chris Wondolowski, the San Jose Earthquakes defeated the defending MLS Cup champion Colorado Rapids 1-0 Friday night in the 2011 MLS Central Coast Challenge. Making their return to the preseason event for the first time since 2009, the Earthquakes improved to 4-1-0 all time at Alex G. Spanos Stadium on the campus of Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. The victory also raised the team’s preseason record to 5-2-1, while adding a fourth clean sheet in that time.

While the Earthquakes were forced to employ a starting XI that looked nothing like that projected for the season opener — especially given the news earlier in the day that forward Steven Lenhart would be out 4 weeks following arthroscopic knee surgery — the Colorado Rapids sent out the same line-up that captured the MLS Cup in Toronto last November. For the Quakes, rookies Rafael Baca and Ellis McLoughlin, as well as second year defenders Steven Beitashour and Ike Opara, were called into duty to take on the defending champs in a test of their preparation for MLS play. Leading the offense, from a withdrawn forward role, was the ever reliable Wondolowski, who notched his fourth goal in the last four preseason matches with a 30th minute penalty kick. The 2010 MLS Golden Boot winner was pleased with the effort of the Earthquakes on the night, especially against a tough league opponent.

“We’re trying to get up to full speed,” said Wondolowski. “Obviously as the season goes along we have kinks that we will want to work out so that we are hitting our stride for MLS Cup. It’s always a building process. Having said that, we want to get off to a good start this season, so we are trying to play at as high a speed as we can right now in this great atmosphere and against some great competition.”

The match in a nut-shell was played with that theme in mind. While quite shaky in the initial minutes, especially against a determined attacking duo of Omar Cummings and Conor Casey for the Colorado Rapids, the team settled down with a quarter hour, and took strides toward being the better team throughout the first half. In the second stanza, the Rapids played with more intensity, especially with the inclusion of ex-Earthquakes forward Quincy Amarikwa following halftime, and it took some outstanding work from ‘keeper Jon Busch to keep the Quakes in the lead. For the 2689 in attendance, the match was as entertaining as might be seen during the MLS regular season.

“I thought it was a decent performance,” assessed Earthquakes head coach Frank Yallop following the match. “You are playing a team coming off of winning the MLS Cup so you know they are going to be tough. They had there full starting unit out there while we are a bit banged up. It was an evenly played game, not a lot of chances for either side. Overall I was pleased with the effort; it was a good night for us.”

Playing the whole 90 minutes for the Earthquakes was holding midfielder Sam Cronin, who provided a stabilizing influence for the team throughout the game while showing no lingering effects from early preseason injuries that limited his play. Cronin played the “veteran” partner to rookie Rafael Baca for the first 60 minutes of the match, and did well to link up with the senior from Loyola Marymount University. Baca proved at times that he could handle the pace and intensity of play presented by the Rapids, and he even developed some good possession passing with the wings as the first half rolled on. Cronin, playing deep to start the game as the Earthquakes took time to find their footing, then was able to push the ball further up the field and display his growing composure on the ball and in transitioning possession from the back line to the offense.

“The intensity and energy was great tonight,” said Cronin of the match. “There were times when we played very well. It might not have been perfect for the whole 90 minutes, but we wanted make sure we were focused. This is really our first competitive MLS game we’ve played in the 2011 preseason. It was always going to be important to us to measure up against a tough Western Conference opponent, and I thought we did that tonight.”

In just the first 10 minutes of the match, the Colorado Rapids looked like they were going to continue their winning ways against the Quakes dating back to last year’s playoffs. Cummings and Casey looked especially dangerous against a centerback duo of Opara and Brandon McDonald that seemed very uncomfortable on the ball. While Rapids corner kicks in the 1st and 4th minutes amounted to nothing, the sense of weakness in the Quakes defense by Colorado was apparent in how high up the field their midfield duo of Jeff Larentowicz and Pablo Mastroeni ventured. After Mastroeni sent a perfect leading pass ahead to Cummings in the 9th minute, the cunning defense of Ramiro Corrales was required to shepherd the ball to safety before the speedy forward could race in on goal.

The Earthquakes were settling in more comfortably on defense, but a lack of offensive cohesion allowed the Rapids to continue their onslaught on the San Jose goal. In the 13th minute Casey collected a pass while he appeared offside from Larentowicz that did see him through on Busch. However, the Quakes’ ‘keeper was quick to cut off the angle and turned the MLS Cup MVP’s shot just wide of the right post for a Rapids corner. Four minutes later, Cummings was able to muscle Opara off of a loose ball and dribble toward the left byline before slamming shot just wide of the post an onto the side netting.

While Baca and Joey Gjersten were increasing their influence on proceedings and finding good space in the middle of the park, the Quakes attacking twosome of Ryan Johnson and Ellis McLoughlin were not able to trouble the Rapids defense in the first quarter of the match. McLoughlin even slipped into the midfield at times, giving the Quakes a formation that more resembled a 4-5-1, in an effort to get better involved; however, his impact during his time on the field was limited. Johnson was doing admirable as a target forward, but lacking teammates to work with in the attacking third, his efforts went mostly for naught.

Midway through the first half, the possession scale started to tip back toward the Earthquakes, in no small part due to an abandonment of the longball strategy used prior in an effort to relieve the Rapids pressure on the Quakes defense. Most evident by the work of Gjertsen and Wondolowski along the right touchline, the Earthquakes broke free in the 27th minute, only for Wondo’s low cross into the area to just be out of reach of Johnson in front of goal. The sequence marked the first significant attacking move by the Quakes up to that point in the game, and the Rapids responded by playing more defensively in their midfield. Now allowed to shift their own players into a more attacking formation, San Jose found the break that led to the penalty call and subsequent only goal of the game.

In the 29th minute, after collected a harmless clearance from Rapids defender Drew Moore, the Earthquakes quickly pushed the ball back into the Rapids half of the field. Steven Beitashour knocked the ball to the sideline for Gjertsen, and he turned to survey the situation ahead of him.

“On the play that led to the penalty,” described Cronin from his vantage point in the center of midfield, “we were able to switch the ball over to Ellis (McLoughlin) from Joey (Gjertsen) through the midfield, and he slid a great through ball into Ryan (Johnson) onto a good timed run from him. That’s the kind of movement we have been working on in the preseason, being able to spring players and being dynamic in the attacking third. That goal definitely resulted from the good movement of us.”

Indeed, Johnson looked destined to bear down on goal before a heavy shoulder challenge from Marvel Wynne toppled the Earthquakes striker just inside the upper left corner of the penalty area. The referee was quick to point to the spot, though that call might not have been as forthcoming in regular season MLS game, and Wondolowski stepped up to take the penalty kick. Calmly waiting to see what goalkeeper Matt Pickens might do ahead of his kick, Wondo smoothly put the ball to the left after hearing the referee’s whistle.

“I took a peek at the ‘keeper and saw that he was leaning to the right,” revealed Wondolowski, “so I opened up my foot a bit and hit it to the other side. I can’t wait for when the goals to count for real, when that happens I’ll be smiling even bigger.”

The remainder of the first half was clearly in the favor of San Jose, with the Earthquakes failing to capitalize on two scoring opportunities that would have doubled their lead. In the 32nd minute, following a nice interchange with Corrales in their own half, Baca found space to bring the ball forward in the center of the field before finding Johnson with a leading pass. The Jamaican forward took a touch toward goal and fired a shot from 20 yards that forced Pickens into a diving save. Later, in the 43rd minute, after some sloppy defending from Colorado, Johnson collected the ball just above the center circle and slid the ball out to Gjertsen racing down the right wing. He brought the ball into the area before striking the ball past his defender but into the side of the net.

The Earthquakes defense stood tall the rest of the half, and only conceded one more shot on goal. Following a defensive miscue in the 36th minute by Corrales that gifted Casey with the ball, the bulky forward found his striking partner Cummings running across the defense — apparently offside according to coach Yallop when questioned after the game — and led him just inside the area. A quick turn on the ball, with defender Ike Opara unable to cut off his angle to goal, and Cummings sent a blast that eluded Busch but sailed just wide of the far post. The sequence was as close as Colorado would get to leveling the score in the first 45 minutes of the match.

The second half saw little in terms of an offensive push for the Earthquakes, with their defense stepping up to protect the one goal lead for the remaining time in the match. The inclusion of former Earthquake Quincy Amarikwa provided a spark to the Rapids, and he nearly helped engineer an equalizer in the 50th minute following a counterattack into the attacking third. Amarikwa created space on the right side of the field, just outside the area, before bombing a cross to the far post for an unmarked Jamie Smith. The midfielder connected with the cross on the full volley, and did well to send his shot on goal. Busch, making his finest save of the night, quickly reacted to turn the ball around the post for a fruitless corner kick. The sequence energized players on both sides, and the match began to really pick up.

In the 57th minute, the Earthquakes forged a good spell of sustained possession that ultimately led to a Wondolowski effort that was just wide of the target. Bobby Convey, a second half substitute for McLoughlin and getting his first playing time of the preseason, worked the left side of the midfield with aplomb during the sequence, before cutting in to find Wondo for the shot attempt. Three minutes later, Jamaican Khari Stephenson joined Convey in making his 2011 preseason debut spelling Baca in the center of the Earthquakes midfield. Looking composed on the ball and in good fitness, Stephenson did not appear to be too far behind the curve with regard to being ready for the season opener.

Colorado continued to press for a tying goal, and nearly achieved such in the 83rd minute following a free kick from 30 yards out. Larentowicz sent a curling shot toward goal that Busch punched away to what he thought was safety. However, when the defense failed to mark Sanna Nyassi streaking in from the left side to collect the rebound, the Gambian rattled a shot off the outside of the post and out for a goal kick.

The Earthquakes found some energy from second half substitute Omar Jasseh, especially on a darting run in the 88th minute that saw the young midfielder try to break through the Rapids defensive line. Unable to do so, his energy and pace clearly forced Colorado to mind their backline in conjunction with their efforts to score an equalizer. Jasseh was joined on the field by trialist Matt Luzunaris, who spelled Ryan Johnson earlier in the match in the 76th minute. The Quakes hopeful nearly doubled the Earthquakes lead in the 91st minute after connecting on a looping cross from Stephenson, but his header was not powerful enough to elude the outstretched arms of ‘keeper Pickens. A minute later, Jasseh eschewed a safer play to pass off the ball and retain possession for a direct run right into the heart of the Rapids defense. Nearly pulling off the bold maneuver, defender Drew Moor was forced to take down Jasseh for a yellow card earning foul. In an effort to run out the clock, the Earthquakes elected to pass the free kick toward the corner flag, but were quickly disposed by the Rapids.

With under a minute to go in stoppage time, the Rapids made one more foray into the attacking third. Following a looping cross into the area that was not properly cleared but the Quakes defense, the ball squirted skyward at the top of the six-yard box where goalkeeper Busch and the Rapids Moor collided in an effort to be the first to the ball. Moor did in fact win the challenge, but his glancing header flashed agonizingly wide of the post as Busch crumpled to the grass. The referee immediately blew his whistle, and the Earthquakes 1-0 victory was secured.

• • •

MLS Central Coast Challenge
San Jose
Earthquakes vs. Colorado Rapids
March 4, 2011 – Alex G. Spanos Stadium
Attendance: 6,289

Scoring Summary: SJ – Chris Wondolowski 30

Misconduct Summary: SJ – Bobby Convey (68); COL – Pablo Mastroeni (18), Quincy Amarikwa (55), Drew Moor (90)

San Jose Earthquakes – Jon Busch, Ramiro Corrales, Ike Opara (Bobby Burling 56), Brandon McDonald, Steven Beitashour, Ellis McLoughlin (Bobby Convey 45), Rafael Baca (Khari Stephenson 60), Sam Cronin, Joey Gjertsen (Omar Jasseh 70), Chris Wondolowski, Ryan Johnson (Matt Luzunaris 76).

Statistics: Shots: 6; Shots on Goal: 2; Fouls: 13; Offsides: 3; Corners: 1.

Colorado Rapids – Matt Pickens, Kosuke Kimura, Marvell Wynne, Drew Moor, Anthony Wallace, Brian Mullan (Wells Thompson 67), Pablo Mastroeni (Joseph Nane 45), Jeff Larentowicz, Jamie Smith (Sanna Nyassi 72), Conor Casey (Andre Akpan 79), Omar Cummings (Quincy Amarikwa 45).

Statistics: Shots: 13; Shots on Goal: 5; Fouls: 7; Offsides: 3; Corners: 6.