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San Jose Earthquakes reach MLS standings summit with 2-1 victory over Real Salt Lake

Possession and passing accuracy statistics favored Real Salt Lake. So did shots on goal. Even yellow card offenses were in the home side’s favor. The one statistic that RSL didn’t come out on top? Well, look no further than the Rio Tinto Stadium scoreboard.

Behind second half goals from Alan Gordon and Chris Wondolowski, the San Jose Earthquakes completed their Rocky Mountain road trip with a 2-1 victory over Real Salt Lake. The three points earned by the Earthquakes took their season total to 33 and vaulted them into first place in the MLS Western Conference and at the top of the Supporters’ Shield standings.

“This is a tough place to play, so to come away with three points is huge and something we’ll build on,” said Wondolowski. “First place in the league — we’ll take that. We need to keep building on it though; we can’t be content where we are right now.”

The smash-and-grab victory over Real Salt Lake was made even more impressive by the Earthquakes total defensive team effort. While the centerback duo of Jason Hernandez and Victor Bernardez will garner most of the credit, every player on the field was responsible for keeping the dangerous RSL attack at bay. Head coach Frank Yallop was especially pleased to see his team secure their first victory against Real Salt Lake since the 2005 MLS regular season.

“They never crumbled under a lot of pressure,” said Yallop. “Salt Lake put a lot of pressure on us. That’s how they play every night and that’s how they have played all season.  I’m proud of the way that we kept going in such a difficult place to play. They are a great team and winning here is very difficult. For us to come out of here with three points is wonderful.”

The match was scoreless through nearly 75 minute of play, but not for lack of trying by Real Salt Lake. The return of regular starting goalkeeper Jon Busch between the posts was one stabilizing influence for the visitors, but on no less than three occasions his defensive back four was called to action to keep the ball out of the back of the net. The most spectacular of those saves came courtesy of Hernandez, who with Busch stranded off his line, made an acrobatic headed save to keep RSL off the scoreboard.

“A lot of times there’s a scramble in the box and Busch gets caught out trying to make a play,” said Hernandez. “I’ve been known to just creep in behind him and just try to be that last line of defense and in years past, I’ve had one or two go my way and that’s just something that’s natural for me.  I get back there and just try to keep the ball out of the net, and luckily, it came right to me and I was fortunate enough to hit it over.”

The save of the game by Hernandez was enough to earn him Man of the Match honors, but finishing in a close second was super sub Alan Gordon. As he has done consistently all season, Gordon made a late entrance into the game, and soon thereafter produced another moment of brilliance for the Earthquakes as he gave them their first lead of the night with an opportunistic goal against a befuddled RSL defense. Later, after the home side had drawn level on a Javier Morales free kick, Gordon again provided an offensive spark for his team, as his flick on header from a Justin Morrow throw-in set up Wondolowski’s game winning goal.

“Another good one for us,” said Gordon.  “It’s been a common thing and we’re used to it. It’s kind of crazy, but we’re rolling right now.”

Rolling indeed, as the Earthquakes finished their two game swing through the Rocky Mountains with all six points and the confidence that no matter how difficult the venue, they can emerge victorious.

The Earthquakes starting XI saw a trio of changes from the line-up that defeated the Colorado Rapids 2-1 in midweek. Busch returned in goal and Khari Stephenson and Ramiro Corrales entered the midfield in San Jose's defensive-minded 4-5-1 formation.

Both teams started slowly, as summer heat wave in Sandy, Utah saw the mercury rising to over 95 degrees on the field at kick-off. The Earthquakes never struck first, as a long diagonal ball from Corrales in the 11th minute found Wondolowski with space behind the RSL defense. With defender Chris Wingert closing him down, Wondolowski had only goalkeeper Nick Rimando to beat, but the ball seemed to skip just out of his reach, and he pushed his shot wide of the near post.

The momentum soon shifted in favor of Real Salt Lake, and they had their best scoring chance of the first half when a through ball to Fabian Espindola carried the Argentine forward into the area with only Busch to beat. Espindola rounded the 'keeper and sent a well placed shot toward goal, but a sprinting Justin Morrow reached the ball before it could cross the line and headed it away from danger.

Still playing on their front foot, RSL nearly broke through for the game's first goal when Espindola again collected a through ball behind the Earthquakes defense. His crossing pass to the far post was intended for forward Alvaro Saborio, but centerback Victor Bernardez was able to clear it over the byline. On the resulting corner kick, Saborio had an open look at goal, but his header was well saved by Busch.

A match between the Earthquakes and Real Salt Lake would not be complete without controversy, and in the 36th minute the moment came for consternation. A charging foray into the area by Morales was neutralized by a questionable tackle from behind delivered by Corrales. The RSL midfielder had a legitimate call for a penalty, but referee Jair Marrufo waved him off and play continued.

The second half started with the Earthquakes showing more urgency moving forward, and twice in the opening minutes nearly broke through the resolute RSL defense. Then, in the 52nd minute, after a long pass was expertly collected by Steven Lenhart deep in the attacking third, the forward turned the ball into the path of Simon Dawkins to drive toward goal. The Tottenham loan product blasted a 25 yard shot through the wall of RSL defenders but just wide of the far post.

With the San Jose offensive push now on the wane, RSL relentlessly pressured the Earthquakes midfield into turning over the ball in dangerous places A strong push forward in the 57th minute saw Saborio collect a ball in the area with a scoring opportunity beckoning. Instead of getting off the shot, the RSL forward was intercepted by Hernandez and the ball was poked away. Hernandez then still had the wherewithal to deflect away a follow-up attempt by onrushing midfielder Will Johnson.

The match remained scoreless, but perhaps sensing an opportunity at hand to put one over one RSL, coach Yallop made a pair of substitutions to jumpstart his team’s flagging offense. In the 59th minute, Gordon entered for a tiring Lenhart and in the 66th minute, Shea Salinas replaced an injured Dawkins. The Earthquakes later described the injury to Dawkins as a shoulder sprain, a product of being rolled over in the offensive area by big RSL defender Nat Borchers.

Coach Yallop’s moves to invigorate the offense did not take effect right away, but that was of little consequence as the Earthquakes defense continued their own heroics. In the 72nd minute, Hernandez made the defensive play of the night, as following a save by Busch on a point-blank shot from Johnson, the centerback sprinted back to the goal mouth to clear a follow-up shot up from Saborio up and over the crossbar.

The course of the match changed dramatically over the next ten minutes, as both teams finally broke through on the scoresheet. The first goal of the game came in the 75th minute, as super-sub Gordon continued his 2012 season of late game heroics with a well placed header over the outstretched arms of Rimando. Coming from a crossing pass from Corrales that was innocently floated into the RSL area, Borchers misjudged the ball and failed to make the required aerial clearance allowing Gordon to sneak around him for the shot on goal.

However, the Earthquakes lead was short lived, as Real Salt Lake equalized in the 79th minute on a 20 yard free kick from Morales. The shot from the RSL midfielder was expertly sent over the Earthquakes defensive wall and just out of the reach of Busch at the near post. The set piece opportunity resulted from a soft foul call against Bernardez for apparently horse collaring Espindola just outside the penalty area.

Not content to merely play for the point on the road, the Earthquakes regained the lead in the 84th minute as Wondolowski scored a highlight reel goal that marked the 13th goal of his Golden Boot caliber season. A deep throw-in from Morrow was flicked into the area by Gordon. Wondolowski, stepping in front of RSL defender Wingert, deflected the ball with the outside of his right boot and just under goalkeeper Rimando to give the visitors a 2-1 lead.

Back in front, the Earthquakes deployed a defense-first strategy over the remaining ten minutes of the match that earned San Jose their second victory of the season over Real Salt Lake. With the win, the Earthquakes improved to 10-3-3 on the season and moved ahead of RSL into first place in the MLS Western Conference. The Earthquakes return to the Bay Area for a U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal match against the Seattle Sounders on Tuesday at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco and a California Claisco showdown with the Los Angeles Galaxy on Saturday at Stanford Stadium.

(Photo courtesy of Stuart Berman,

San Jose Earthquakes (10-3-3) at Real Salt Lake (10-5-2)
June 23, 2012 — Rio Tinto Stadium
Attendance: 18,050

Scoring Summary: SJ — Alan Gordon (Ramiro Corrales) 75; RSL — Javier Morales (unassisted) 79; SJ — Chris Wondolowski (Alan Gordon, Justin Morrow) 84.

Misconduct Summary: SJ — Khari Stephenson (caution) 41; RSL — Kyle Beckerman (caution) 45+1; RSL — Fabian Espindola (caution) 90.

San Jose Earthquakes — Jon Busch, Steven Beitashour, Victor Bernardez, Jason Hernandez, Justin Morrow, Marvin Chavez, Khari Stephenson (Jean-Marc Alexandre 84), Ramiro Corrales, Chris Wondolowski, Simon Dawkins (Shea Salinas 66), Steven Lenhart (Alan Gordon 59).

Statistics: Total Shots: 12; Shots on Goal: 6; Saves: 6; Fouls: 14; Offside: 2; Corner Kicks: 3.

Real Salt Lake Nick Rimando, Tony Beltran (Paulo Jr. 89), Nat Borchers, Terakazu Tanaka (Luis Gil 72), Chris Wingert, Kyle Beckerman, Ned Grabavoy (Johnny Steele 59), Will Johnson, Javier Morales, Fabian Espindola, Alvaro Saborio.

Statistics: Total Shots: 19; Shots on Goal: 7; Saves: 4; Fouls: 11; Offside: 1; Corner Kicks: 7.