Heading into the weekend, I was looking forward to watching what the San Jose Earthquakes could do against Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium Saturday night. When the same two teams faced off for MLS First Kick back in March, RSL prevailed 1-0 on a dark and stormy night at Buck Shaw Stadium behind a blast from Kyle Beckerman. The Quakes played some attractive attacking soccer that evening despite the conditions, but somehow could not find the back of the net. Within minutes of the result, I had already circled my calendar for the return leg in Utah as a game not to miss.
A lot has changed for both teams in the ensuing months; most notably San Jose has ditched their 4-3-3 formation experiment in favor of the more traditional 4-4-2. Early season doldrums made way for a nice late spring run, but the team returned to their struggling ways and had not posted a league victory over their past seven games going into this weekend. Due to a variety of reasons — injuries, suspensions, leaves of absence, match congestion — the Quakes were not expected to field their best XI against RSL, but that didn’t diminish my expectations for the contest.
Earlier in the week as a guest on my favorite podcast, Around the League, I audibly shuddered when asked to predict the outcome of the Earthquakes visit to the RioT. My gut suggested another nil-nil draw — the Quakes have made them a mainstay of their summer diet — but I went with an optimistic 1-1 score line instead. San Jose’s recent form on the road was very much in line with the rest of MLS in that the team played not to lose rather than risk defeat by going for the win.
Even though I predicted a draw for the weekend, I held out hope that somehow the Quakes would get maximum points as compensation for their unrewarded season opening performance. For whatever reason, San Jose has shown a proclivity for playing Real Salt Lake with a toughness and determination that they don’t always put out there for other opponents. The possession statistics tend to lean heavily in favor of RSL, but the Quakes counter with a defensive resiliency that keeps things close and allows for a moment or two of brilliance in the attacking third. Even though that goal failed to materialize in the great deluge on March 19, perhaps it would come in the summer heat of July 23.
In the week leading up to the Quakes visit to Utah, the team dropped points to Vancouver in a 2-2 home draw that seemed to fire up the players to want to do better the next time out. Midfielder Jacob Peterson was especially motivated to do well with his new team, and oft-maligned striker Scott Sealy relished the idea of earning more minutes after a long stretch of dealing with injuries and ineffectiveness. Chris Wondolowski, coming off a two goal performance against the Whitecaps, strode the training field as if the heavy weight of sky-high expectations had been lifted from his shoulders. To a man, the Earthquakes recognized that a visit to Rio Tinto was not going to be easy, but their confidence was visibly on the upswing.
As the minutes counted down to kickoff, news came of some significant changes to the starting XI, with central defender Jason Hernandez being a late scratch due to a failed pregame fitness test. Newly acquired defender Nana Attakora was the late replacement for Hernandez, and he was making his first start in over a month. Midfield enforcer Brad Ring shifted to the bench in favor of Sam Cronin. Tall and strong forward Steven Lenhart, probably the only attacking player on the roster that stood a chance to physically match up with RSL central defenders Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave, was back with his family in Southern California still dealing with the fallout from his father’s death earlier this year. Looking down the list of eleven starters, the line-up card could easily have been recycled from a U.S Open Cup qualifier or midweek international friendly, so much were the changes from the starting XI head coach Frank Yallop usually employed.
Despite all the changes, the Earthquakes had a lively start to the match, with both teams having chances in the first 15 minutes to open the scoring. Peterson, as he did the last two games with the Quakes, showed good speed on the right wing and kept defenders honest in their attempts to join the attack. When referee David Gantar showed Peterson yellow in the 15 minute, it seemed to neuter the midfielder and he was rarely a factor throughout the rest of the evening. Unfortunately for the Earthquakes, Gantar was not done taking their drive away.
For the remainder of the first half, Real Salt Lake asserted themselves in possession and starting to make life difficult for the Quakes makeshift defensive back four. Goalkeeper Jon Busch proved the hero on a couple of occasions, as he has done all season as arguably the team’s Most Valuable Player. Sam Cronin was unable to alleviate the pressure on the defense from his midfield stopper position, and RSL continued to probe away as they looked for passing lanes toward goal. San Jose did what they have done well since the scoring machine has shut down — falling from best in MLS in goals per game following their win at DC United to 13th heading into the game at RSL — and kept the game scoreless going into the half.
The second stanza began with Real Salt Lake playing on a field tilted toward the visiting goal, as the Earthquakes appeared to be in for a 45 minute barrage of attacking soccer by the home side. Emergency defender Attakora fell victim to the pressure and was subbed off with a recurrence of his hamstring injury less than 10 minutes in. Trustworthy enforcer Brad Ring staked his claim to the center of the Quakes defense, and even before he could build up a good sweat, he earned a yellow card for physical play. Perhaps that call was fresh in referee Gantar’s head, because something has to be in play with what happened just minutes later.
As RSL forward Alvaro Saborio, a preseason favorite for the MLS Golden Boot that was only now starting to produce for his club team, collected a through ball into the area and toward the Quakes goal, defender Bobby Burling made a run across the Costa Rican’s body and made maybe the slightest of touches with his hip. Saborio stumbled and tumbled to the ground like he had been sideswiped by a semi truck, and the ball trickled harmlessly to Busch. Ring, coming up behind the play, threw his arms in the air, as did Burling, and the pair awaited for the onrushing referee to show yellow to Saborio for his egregious dive. Instead, Gantar quickly produced a red card from his back hip pocket and flashed it at a shocked Ring, who wasn’t even involved with the alleged foul, and pointed to the penalty spot. Earthquakes players went ballistic at the decision, and their incredulous reaction to the decision was palpable through the television broadcast.
Recognizing that he had made a mistake, but only when his assistant referee called him over for a conference, Gantar rescinded the red card to Ring and gifted it instead to a still reeling Burling. The blatant dive went unnoticed by the officiating crew, and Saborio went on to break the scoring deadlock with a penalty kick conversion.
Goalkeeper Busch, echoing the sentiments of his teammates and the countless Quakes supporters watching at home, flashed an inflammatory message in the direction of Gantar and perhaps even Saborio, but the damage was already done. RSL doubled, then tripled, their lead in the next 15 minutes, and tacked on a fourth goal when it was obvious the Quakes had given up on the game. Sure, goal differential counts in MLS for the purposes of standings tiebreakers, but the act of pressing on even into the waning minutes of the game was questionable from a sportsmanship perspective. This wasn’t the World Football Challenge, where every goal counts in their bizarre points accumulation system; this was an MLS match which through referee error had long been decided by the time RSL scored their final goal.
Busch still had something to say after the final whistle, as he gestured and yelled at the RSL bench and their head coach Jason Kreis. The Quakes ‘keeper tried to make light of the incident by calling it an argument over what to order for dinner — he wanted pizza while Kreis wanted steak — but the reaction from the RSL coach said otherwise. Fortunately, his players restrained him from confronting Busch, and the volatile situation did not get any further out of hand.
San Jose left Rio Tinto Stadium in the words of one player on Twitter confused and angry at the outcome. The shellacking at the hands of one of the best teams in MLS was bad enough, but to suffer at the hands, and whistle, of the official in the middle, made it even worse. The Quakes winless streak was stretched to eight games after the 4-0 loss — their last win came courtesy of a 4-2 result at DC United — and the team will look to right the ship against that same team this Saturday at Buck Shaw Stadium. Suspensions, injuries, absences, and coaching decisions conspired to field an unusual starting XI in Utah; the Quakes will have a week of training in San Jose to get it settled for the match against DC United.