SANTA CLARA -- Chris Wondolowski is not about to call it quits on the season.
When his team needed him the most, the San Jose Earthquakes captain scored the only goal in an important 1-0 victory over the Colorado Rapids.
"Wondo has scored some big goals for us, and tonight was no different," said interim head coach Mark Watson. "He had a great game. Wondo has that knack of being in the right place at the right time and he is a fantastic finisher. We needed him tonight."
Wondolowski, whose 10th goal of the season was also his 7th game winning goal of the campaign for San Jose (13-11-8), was enough to bring the Earthquakes within one point of the Rapids (13-10-9) in the Western Conference table.
"We are a team taking it one game at a time," said Wondolowski. "We are trying to get three points whenever we can. We've been in this situation for awhile now where we've got to pick up maximum points."
For nearly three-quarters of the match at sold-out Buck Shaw Stadium, it looked like the Rapids would find a way to keep the Earthquakes off the scoreboard, as time and time again their defense and goalkeeper Clint Irwin stymied a determined home side. However, flashing some of that never-say-die attitude that carried them to the top of the standings a year again, the Quakes scored their most important goal of the season to date.
"I thought we had four or five really good chances to score," said Watson, "so credit to the guys for their perseverance to keep plugging away and keep going at them at getting opportunities. Sometime when you get opportunity after opportunity and they don't go in, guys will drop their heads. Our guys didn't do that."
The game winning goal by Wondolowski was the 33rd of his MLS career, moving him into a tie for third on the all-time list with former LA Galaxy and Chivas USA forward Ante Razov. In addition, his 10th goal of the campaign makes him only the 11th player in MLS history to score double-digit goals in 4 or more consecutive seasons.
"I kept plugging away," said Wondolowski. "You never know when a chance is going to come."
Wondolowski's game winning goal came courtesy of a corner kick delivery by Shea Salinas. The assist was the 20th of Salinas' career with the Earthquakes and came on a night when he was consistently dangerous in the attacking third and refused to let his team succumb to the Rapids.
"We always know we are going to get one," said Salinas. "We never let down. When they don't go in early on it is frustrating but we put it out of our minds immediately and just go for the next. We are all confident in that."
That's something that I love about this locker room," added Wondolowski. "We rise up in big occasions. We don't expect anything less."
With only two games remaining on the schedule, the Earthquakes will try to continue their late season run at the postseason with a visit to rival LA on October 20. Win against the Galaxy and San Jose's final match of the season, at home against FC Dallas on October 26, could have considerable weight on whether the Quakes make the MLS Cup playoffs.
San Jose, missing key players Steven Lenhart to suspension and Victor Bernardez and Marvin Chavez to international duty with the Honduran national team, came out from the opening whistle with the clear intent of going for three points. Playing against a Colorado side that likes to crowd the middle of the field, the Earthquakes used their organized defensive shape and pressure at the center line to twice initiate counterattacks against the Rapids inside the first 10 minutes of the match.
In the 6th minute, a Salinas interception at midfield allowed the speedy winger free passage into the attacking third. His downfield pass to Wondolowski gave space for the forward to strike a hard cross into the six-yard box, but goalkeeper Clint Irwin made a nice punching save to clear the ball. Wondolowski recovered enough to deliver the ball back to Sam Cronin, who sent it back into the mixer, but a wide open Alan Gordon conspired to send a header outside of the post.
A couple minutes later, it was Rafael Baca starting things off from the center circle. His pass out to Salinas on the left side allowed the midfielder space to create something out of nothing along the byline and cut a cross back through the area. After some initial confusion between Wondolowski and Cordell Cato, Wondolowski turned and shot a ball that was deflected high. On the ensuing corner kick, Gordon reached the delivery from Salinas, but smashed his header off the upper corner of the woodwork.
The Rapids certainly dodged a bullet on defense, but in the 19th minute should have taken the lead themselves. Long-time Quakes tormentor Edson Buddle, with space to operate on the right wing, sent a perfect cross to the top of the six-yard box for striking partner Vicente Sanchez, but the Uruguayan somehow conspired to send his free header wide of the target.
San Jose continued to create some promising chances on offense, but Irwin still did not have to make a save. In the 31st minute on a cross into the area from the left wing and in the 35th minute from a free kick delivery, Gordon missed on two very good headed attempts. The Quakes finished out the half without another shot attempt, save a speculative flicked-on header by Wondolowski, and entered the locker room scoreless against the Rapids.
In the 51st minute, an individualized effort from Wondolowski to dribble the ball into the area looked promising, but with only Irwin to beat the forward drilled his shot right at the goalkeeper.
The Earthquakes had to feel that the game was not going to their way when an amazing defensive stand by Drew Moor in the 64th minute kept things scoreless. On another Quakes counterattack, Jordan Stewart had ample time on the left wing to pick out a teammate. The Englishman's cross found Wondolowski free near the penalty spot, and the striker beat Irwin with his shot, but Moor hustled back to clear the ball off the line. Gordon followed up with a shot on the rebound, but a prone Moor deflected the ball to safety.
Snakebit San Jose didn't let down, and only an amazing one-handed save by Irwin was enough to deny a Wondolowski goal on a 69th minute free kick by Salinas. However, the Earthquakes pair would not be denied on the subsequent corner kick, as Wondolowski scored his 10th goal of the season off Salinas' delivery to put the Earthquakes up 1-0.
Down a goal, Colorado showed more urgency on offense and began to test the Quakes defense with regularity. Interim head coach Mark Watson still had all three of his substitutions available, but he elected to keep his starting eleven on the field.
Gordon, who had five previous shot attempts go wanting, worked himself open on an 82nd minute corner kick, but Irwin made a smart save on the forward's header on target. Watson finally went to his bench in the 86th minute, replacing Gordon with rookie Adam Jahn. Defender Justin Morrow entered a minute later for a tired Salinas.
All that was left was for the Earthquakes defense and goalkeeper Jon Busch to see out the game, and they did that with aplomb over 3 minutes of stoppage time. With the final whistle from referee Allen Chapman, the sell-out crowd of 10,525 packing Buck Shaw Stadium erupted in celebration. The Quakes precarious hopes of making the playoffs were still intact with 2 games left in the season. San Jose visits the LA Galaxy on October 20 for its next must-win match.