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How the West was Won... Showdown at The Buck (Again)

Coming into this Saturday’s match up against Real Salt Lake, San Jose Earthquakes players and coaches must be feeling a bit of déjà vu. Once again the titles “Best in the West” and “Leader for the Supporters’ Shield” are being talked about in all forms of media. This unlikely rivalry, which has seen the record stand at 5-5-5 in all regular season match ups with 19 goals for the Quakes to RSL’s 22 goals, feels a lot more heated as the 2012 season wears on.

Fans first looked to the Great Deluge of 2011 where the Quakes played their hearts out in pouring down wind driven rain in their home opener and lost to a Kyle Beckerman goal in the 63rd minute. Later that year, Rio Tinto gave the Quakes a heartfelt thrashing in a 4 - 0 loss by none other than Beckerman, Saborio, and Olave. It wasn’t too shocking because RSL has been known to be one of the best teams since winning the MLS Cup in 2009 and getting to the CONCACAF Champions League finals in 2011.

But then came 2012, the reborn “Goonies”, who enjoyed a 3 -1 win in a controversial match on April 21, seem to be ready for their turn in the spotlight.  This match saw everything from two red cards — Fabian Espindola sent off for a two-footed studs-up challenge on San Jose’s Sam Cronin in the 29th minute and Jamison Olave, as the last defender, took down Steven Lenhart who was making a break away towards Nick Rimando in goal in the 69th minute — to 3 San Jose stoppage time goals.

The first goal was from Khari Stephenson during the 2nd minute of injury time during the first half. But once the second half came, Kyle Beckerman danced easily around two San Jose defenders to slot home the Goal of the Week and pull RSL even. Alas, the Quakes were not going to give up like they had done so many times in the past because we all know that “Goonies never say die”. First came Simon Dawkins with an uncharacteristic (for him) diving header in the 92nd minute followed up a minute later by Chris Wondolowski’s short chip in the 93rd minute to seal the deal on the 3-2 victory.

Skip forward to June 23rd, when San Jose went to Rio Tinto to face Real Salt Lake to once again fight for not only the top spot in the West but this time for the bragging rights of “Leader of the League”. RSL stated that they were going to mark Wondo and not let the “Goonies” leave with any points. Things didn’t quite turn out the way the hoped. RSL had nearly 60% of the possession, 150 more passes with an 81% passing accuracy. They had more attempts on goal (19 to 12), shots on target (8 to 6), and even 4 more corners.

And yet, despite being outdone in every statistical category, the Quakes walked away with all three points with an Alan Gordon goal in the 75th minute and another Wondo winner in the 84th. Javier Morales did get a Goal of the Week nominee in the 79th minute with an impressive free kick, but more impressive was San Jose defender Jason Hernandez getting his first Save of the Week for his denying Saborio with a head flick clearance over the crossbar. It was a match riddled with incredible defensive feats from Justin Morrow putting his body on the line to block shots to Hernandez making saves one after the other.

Now we come to this Saturday night at Buck Shaw for the final installment of the regular season clash of wills. Will Alvaro Saborio continue to score hat tricks, like the one he posted against Portland last weekend to try to take the Golden Boot away from Wondo? Will the San Jose defense stay strong against these rivals? Will Simon Dawkins be healthy enough to be back in the line up? Will Lenhart be rested enough to put his body back on the line to fight for 65 minutes before Alan ‘Flash’ Gordon comes in to relieve him? Will RSL’s defense not lose the ever-prowling Wondo, and if they do close him down will that open up space for Lenhart, Gordon, Dawkins, Baca, Salinas, Stephenson, Cronin, Morrow or Bernardez to score another goal this season? Will Lenny still have a stomach ache from beating MLS All-Star Steven Beitashour in the 2012 Root Beer Float Chug-Off?

So many questions yet to find answers but one thing is certain, after being away from Buck Shaw stadium for the past 8 weeks the Quakes will be out to prove to everyone that there’s no place like home to make a statement that they’re truly the Best in the League.