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Stephenson equalizer gives San Jose Earthquakes well deserved 1-1 draw against Portland Timbers FC

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The San Jose Earthquakes, at this point in the season merely playing the role of spoiler, entered the lion’s den that is Jeld-Wen Field to face a high-flying Portland Timbers team that was riding a four-match winning streak at home. However, instead of capitulating to the hostile crowd and a Timbers squad that had not allowed a goal in over three games, the Earthquakes played one of their best matches of the season and earned a well-deserved 1-1 draw on the road.

Despite falling behind in just the ninth minute of the match courtesy of Kenny Cooper’s sixth goal of the season, San Jose regrouped and dominated possession for the remainder of the night. Finally finding the equalizer through Khari Stephenson in the 70th minute, the Quakes were unlucky not to have secured victory as Timbers goalkeeper Troy Perkins made an acrobatic save on a late Wondolowski header to preserve the tie score.

Obviously we played well,” stated head coach Frank Yallop in his postgame comments. “I really credit our players, for they looked really sharp offensively and defensively. I thought we were great from whistle to whistle, and it was a good performance against a team that is very strong at home. Not only were there some good individual performances but overall it was simply great team performance.”

The final statistics bore out the Earthquakes dominance holding onto the ball, as they enjoyed a 65-35% advantage in possession on the night. The combination of returning team captain Ramiro Corrales to the center of the midfield formation and the smooth, albeit artificial, playing surface at Jeld-Wen Field gave San Jose the upper hand against a Timbers side that more often then not settled for long-ball and route-one tactics.

“The team played well and we were able to move to ball effectively side to side,” was the assessment from Corrales. “We had some good looks on goal, but we were just a bit unlucky tonight not to get more.”

While a victory would have given the Quakes’ playoff hopes a slight jolt, the draw was still a good result against a team at home that are themselves trying to cling to a wildcard playoff spot. Sensing that the possession-style tactics that have seen the Earthquakes play better and better soccer as the seasons change from summer to fall, coach Yallop expects that his team can do even better with the five matches remaining on the schedule.

“We’ve shown signs that this type of game can become a ninety-minute game for us,” suggested Yallop. “Sometimes it takes awhile to build momentum and for the players to start believing in the way we want to play. There have been a lot of changes and stuff that has gone on this year that is out of our hands, obviously, but I think that was a true sort of performance that we are capable of, and we will play like that in the future. We just have to be a bit more ruthless in front of goal; that is the only thing missing in our game right now.”

Goal scoring hero Khari Stephenson, who has been thrust into a forward’s role over the past month-and-a-half of the season, was very encouraged by the progress the Earthquakes have made in their result games.

I think we played really well tonight,” said Stephenson after the match. “We possessed the ball really well and created chances and shots on goal that the goalkeeper had to save. That’s what we’ve been working on all year. It’s just unfortunate that things are only now going our way and we are doing the things we need to do. We’ve played well the last ten games, and it’s been unfortunate that we haven’t won many of those.”

The 70th minute goal from the Jamaican, his second tally in as many games, added to the Earthquakes season tally of 30 points in 29 games. With the projected cut for the 10 teams to qualify for the MLS Cup playoffs set at 45 points, San Jose could match that number with five victories in their five remaining matches. For Stephenson, the result at Portland, while not a victory, was an important step forward in what could be a miracle finish for the team.

“We want to keep pushing for the playoffs,” stated Stephenson when asked whether it was time to start thinking of 2012, “and we are more than capable of winning the next few games if we play like we did tonight, so if it happens, then great.”

The match started positively for San Jose, as the adjustment of moving Ramiro Corrales into the midfield and introducing Justin Morrow at left defensive back forced the Timbers to retreat more into their own half to deal with the Quakes possession in the middle and speed up the flanks. With Simon Dawkins ahead of Morrow on the left, the Quakes continually looked to penetrate the attacking third through the speed and skill of the two young players.

In the 8th minute, Dawkins broke free down the touchline and brought the ball into the Portland area, where he elected to cut the ball back instead of force a pass through the Chris Wondolowski at the far post. Corrales drifted in from the center, and when a weak clearance from a Dawkins giveaway landed at his feet, he fired a long range effort that went high of the target.

On the ensuing goal kick, the advantage the Quakes held in possession and momentum was cruelly surrendered after a defensive miscue from central back Bobby Burling. With goalkeeper Troy Perkins sending the ball deep down the right, Burling misjudged the flight of the ball, and missed on his effort to clear the aerial ball to safety.

“I didn’t help us out, I put us in a hole early,” said Burling apologetically “It’s a play I usually make, but I lost it in the lights and the next thing I know the ball is bouncing behind me.”

Sensing an opportunity, Timbers forward Darlington Nagbe pounced on the loose ball and rounded Burling on his way toward goal. The rookie out of Akron University, and the second overall pick in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft, elected to square the ball to his striking partner Kenny Cooper instead of going for goal himself. Nagbe’s unselfishness was rewarded, as Cooper bundled the ball past goalkeeper Jon Busch for the game’s opening goal.

“The goal, obviously, is a bit unlucky,” lamented Yallop on the Burling mistake, “but we showed great character to come back from that only 9 minutes into the game against a team that is very dominant at home. We come back into it and played some very good soccer to get the reward we deserved.”

Indeed, the shell-shocked Earthquakes were lucky not to immediately be down two goals on the evening, as in the 13th minute the Timbers again found space on the right side when midfielder Kalif Alhassan found Sal Zizzo with a perfectly weighted pass through the Quakes defense. Zizzo sprinted into the area before picking out Nagbe making a run right up the gut of the defense. Receiving the ball in stride, Nagbe directed the ball toward the far post, and if not for an acrobatic save from Busch, Portland would have doubled their lead. Instead, the Earthquakes were given a much needed reprieve.

After the near-miss from the Timbers, the Quakes regained their composure and began to dominate the run of play for the rest of the first half. Unfortunately, quality spells of possession were not translated into scoring opportunities, as Portland looked content to soak up the pressure ahead of their defensive third.

The Earthquakes had their best chance to level the score in the 37th minute, as some nifty interplay from Corrales and right winger Rafael Baca allowed Wondolowski to create some space inside the Timbers area. The rookie slid the ball to Wondo 12 yards from goal, who after taking a touch to steady himself, prepared to blast a close-range effort on goal. Unfortunately, Portland’s Designated Player midfielder Diego Chara flung himself into the path of Wondo’s shot, and the ball was deflected for a corner kick.

The second half of the match started a bit more evenly than the first half had ended, as the Timbers made some adjustment in their spacing in an effort to disrupt the steady possession advantage the Quakes enjoyed for 45 minutes. Both teams also seemed more willing to engage physically, making for a lack of smooth possession for both sides in the opening minutes of the second stanza.

Victimized by a penalty kick call the weekend before in Houston, the Earthquakes nearly suffered the same fate in Portland, when a suspect challenge from defender Nana Attakora on Nagbe was not called by the head official. Following a 20-yard shot from Alhassan that handcuffed Busch, the ball bounced directly into the path of the Timbers rookie forward. With Attakora apparently pulling at his jersey, Nagbe went down in a heap as the Quakes defender slide-tackled the ball away from danger. Portland’s calls for a foul were unheard, and the score remained one goal in favor of the Timbers.

In the 64th minute, a well executed counterattack by the Earthquakes saw them earn their best scoring chance to that point in the second half. Following a Timbers corner kick, Corrales collected the loose ball in his own area and fed it to Baca moving toward the wing. Baca touched the ball back to the Earthquakes captain, and he was off to the races against the rapidly retreating Timbers. Finding Stephenson at the top of the area, Corrales delivered a pass right to the feet of the Jamaican, but his turn-and-shoot attempt on goal went right into the waiting arms of Perkins.

Six minutes later, then Earthquakes finally earned the equalizer in a play that overall was a microcosm for the effective possession play the team had displayed all evening. Wondolowski, playing just below the center line, received the ball from the back line and turned to assess the field, where he sent the ball through to Justin Morrow sprinting up the left touchline. The second-year defender touched the ball back inside for Dawkins, who picked out Baca for a ball across the field. The Mexican rookie redirected the ball back across the top of the area for Stephenson, who despite being off balance, managed to direct a shot on goal that slipped just inside the left upright for his fifth goal of 2011.

“We were having good possession and good ball movement in the minutes leading up to the goal,” shared Stephenson. “Rafa got the ball wide, he played me inside, and I took a touch and hit it. I was a bit off balance, but I tried to turn and get a good shot off. I didn’t connect with the ball as well as I wanted to, but it snuck in. It was nice to have a little bit of luck go our way for a change.”

Lucky or not, the goal was a just reward for the Earthquakes. And with the momentum created by the play, San Jose nearly found a second goal a couple minutes later through Stephenson. Running the ball toward the left byline in the 73rd minute, Wondolowski wisely cut the ball back toward the six-yard box for the lanky Jamaican, but Chara was there again to make a desperation slide-tackling save on an Earthquakes opportunity, and Stephenson could put little behind his shot attempt.

In the 84th minute, Corrales would have a golden chance to give the Earthquakes a lead, but he failed to capitalize on a loose ball 12 yards from goal. After Dawkins attempted to split a pair of defenders at the top of the area, the ball bounded to Corrales just outside the right goalpost, but forced to use his less-preferred right foot, Corrales sent the ball high and wide of the target with only Timbers goalkeeper Perkins to beat.

In the 86th minute, Perkins made the save of the game for the home side, as he was forced to deal with a Wondolowski header. Second half substitute Maxwell Griffin used his energy to track a ball in the right corner and return the ball up to Baca along the right wing. A quick turn to deliver the ball to Corrales, followed by a pass to Dawkins, eventually saw the ball swung across the field and into the path of Morrow running into space deep on the left side. With a good left-footed touch, Morrow sent the ball into the mixer, where Wondo lifted himself up to deflect the ball toward the near post. Instead of celebrating a game-winning goal, the Earthquakes leading scorer could only watch as Perkins made a reaction save to get low and deflect the ball around the frame for a corner kick.

After a frantic five minutes to close out the match, the score remained at 1-1, and both teams shared a point apiece from a very entertaining match. The draw moved the Portland Timbers into sole possession of the last MLS Cup playoffs wildcard spot, one point ahead of the reeling New York Red Bulls, while San Jose stayed seven points out of the postseason hunt.

Up next for the Earthquakes is a visit to Dick’s Sporting Goods Park outside of Denver to face the defending MLS Cup champion Colorado Rapids on Saturday evening (kick off is scheduled for 6 p.m. PDT.)

(Photo: Jay Hipps, centerlinesoccer.com)

San Jose Earthquakes (6-11-12) vs. Portland Timbers (10-12-7)
September 21, 2011 – JELD-WEN Field
Attendance: 18,627

Scoring Summary: POR — Kenny Cooper (Darlington Nagbe) 9; SJ — Khari Stephenson (Rafael Baca) 70.

Misconduct Summary: SJ — Sam Cronin (caution) 52; POR — Jack Jewsbury (caution) 80; POR — Jorge Perlaza (caution) 86; SJ — Rafael Baca (Caution) 92+.

Portland Timbers — Troy Perkins, Lovel Palmer, Eric Brunner, Mamadou Danso, Mike Chabala, Sal Zizzo, Jack Jewsbury, Diego Chara (James Marcelin 83), Kalif Alhassan, Kenny Cooper (Bright Dike 85), Darlington Nagbe (Jorge Perlaza 75).

Statistics: Total shots: 16; Shots on goal: 7; Saves: 6; Fouls: 9; Offside: 7; Corner kicks: 2.

San Jose Earthquakes — Jon Busch, Steven Beitashour, Nana Attakora, Bobby Burling, Justin Morrow, Rafael Baca, Sam Cronin (Maxwell Griffin 76), Ramiro Corrales, Simon Dawkins, Khari Stephenson, Chris Wondolowski.

Statistics: Total shots: 19; Shots on goal: 7; Saves: 6; Fouls: 12; Offside: 1; Corner kicks: 7.