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San Jose Earthquakes 3-1 Real Salt Lake: The view from the bleachers

There will come a time this season when the performance of the 2012 San Jose Earthquakes will falter, and the fans will begin to wonder if the team’s early season success will translate into a spot in the playoffs. For the time being, I choose to live in the moment, bask in the glow of the team’s 5-1-1 record and wear the satisfied smile of a fan whose team is atop the MLS Western Conference after toppling RSL last Saturday.

My evening kicked off in the Epicenter where I bumped (gently) into Shea Salinas, who was sporting “Please Do Not Touch” across his freshly mended left collar bone. He seemed in good spirits - but then he was clutching a huge bag of chocolate chip cookies. Ellis McLoughlin and Joey Gjertsen graciously ‘scarved’ the necks of five-year-bleacher-veteran season ticket holders, though with game time temperature approaching 80 degrees, said scarf spent most of the evening carefully folded beside my seat cushion. As I assembled in the stands with my fellow fans, we chuckled as we remembered the great deluge that accompanied last year’s home game against RSL – this was most definitely the opposite.

The first hot day of the year turned into a balmy evening, as the sun sank slowly behind the Ultras as the players prepared to kick off. Any advantage to the Quakes in the first half with their backs to the sun were counteracted by the equally dazzling fluorescent orange kit worn by the RSL goal keeper Nick Rimando – think Mango Tangelo tropical Skittles – an unusual tactical move I thought. The game unfolded with the Quakes confidently controlling the ball, pressing on goal only to be denied on several occasions by the excellent deflection skills of Rimando. The straight red card issued to Espindola in the 29th minute reinforced the optimism among the fans, and we were rewarded just before half time with a Khari Stevenson header: 1-0 Quakes.

The good cheer was subdued by a well-crafted goal by Kyle Beckerman, who effortlessly weaved his way through the Quakes defense, placing the ball in the net past Jon Busch in the 53rd minute. As the half progressed without any Quakes success on goal, more than one fan harkened back to the disappointment of last season’s scoreless home tie against a ten-man LA Galaxy with diminutive midfielder Mike Magee in goal. Compared to that game, maybe even because of it, we saw a much more positive coaching response: firstly, forward Steven Lenhart replaced midfielder Sam Cronin in the 61st minute; secondly, after Lenhart was pulled down by the ‘last man’ Jamison Olave, who earned his own red card in the 69th minute, defender Ike Opara was replaced with forward Alan Gordon. Obviously, the Quakes were aiming to capitalize on RSL’s unusual, and increasingly stretched 4-4-0 formation.

It’s not clear if Olave was ambling, moseying or sauntering as he left the field, but his tortuously slow exit contributed to the six minutes of stoppage time that turned out to be crucial in ensuring the Quakes eventual victory. After the final substitution for Baca with Garza in the 82nd minute, Dawkins and Wondo netted headers in the aforementioned stoppage time, with the final tally on the night 3-1 in favor of the Quakes, 100 appearances for Jason Hernandez and 100 MLS victories for Frank Yallop - congratulations both.

Saturday’s performance against erstwhile conference leaders Real Salt Lake was heartening on several levels. It was particularly encouraging to see proof of how deep this year’s roster really is – with the loss of four key players (Bernardez, Chavez, Corrales and Salinas) any other season the squad might have been considered shorthanded. This year, Hernandez, Moreno, Opara, and Dawkins stepped in seamlessly sustaining the possession football we had seen in the Vancouver and New York games; the Quakes played at least as equals to RSL, one of the better teams in the league over the past couple of years. Even though it took a while to nail down the victory, I was also encouraged to see that the goals were scored by three different players: Stephenson, Dawkins and Wondo.

My own 'man of the match' was Steven Beitashour, who put in another tireless and creative performance that earned him two assists on the night in addition to his solid defensive work at right back. Honorable mentions also go to Tressor Moreno, who was very calm, confident and poised on the ball, and Justin Morrow who made several incisive and productive runs deep down the left flank. Fans were excited to see the MLS debut of Sam Garza, and while he didn’t have much time to leave his mark on this game, he left RSL’s remaining defenders in his wake. I had seen Garza put in a tireless effort in the reserve league on Easter Sunday, where he earned an assist - with the effective play of defensive replacements Opara and Hernandez, I was once again reminded of the value of the reserve league, where all three had recently played together.

The final relief of the late game winners was still being articulated by the veteran season ticket holders as we lined up down the touchline waiting for our souvenir photograph in the North End goal. There are also many seasoned veterans among the fans, appreciative of the efforts of the front office to recognize our support over five years in the bleachers at Buck Shaw; our squad is just as deep.  There will surely be challenging times ahead this season, sometimes there will be failure and disappointment, but right now the Earthquakes squad is playing well and the roster looks deeper than ever before – deep enough to weather potential storms. With so many hands available to be called on deck, it’s full steam ahead.