SAN JOSE, Calif. — It was a slight improvement in play, as the San Jose Earthquakes started the game smartly, but it was much of the same old, same old, as they capitulated late in a 1-1 draw with the Seattle Sounders in front of 18,000 at Avaya Stadium Saturday night.
The match was the first MLS regular season game for the Quakes since the club fired long-time general manager John Doyle for, among other things, playing unattractive soccer. And an energetic opening stanza, one in which Chris Wondolowski scored his 10th goal of the season -- the seventh straight MLS season in which he’s reached double digits — looked very promising for the sold-out crowd that had booed the team off the field two weeks ago.
Instead, the Quakes retreated into a defense-first formation, and Seattle took charge of the game, eventually equalizing in the 80th minute on a free kick from Nicolas Lodeiro. The early momentum by San Jose was ceded, the Sounders capitalized, and both teams went home with a single point. Effectively, neither side helped its playoff chances with the result.
Pure Energy: From the opening whistle, the Quakes were on the front foot against Seattle, much like the Portland Timbers were a week ago in racing out to a 4-0 first half lead against the Sounders en route to three points. When San Jose had they ball, players were moving into space, cutting back against the run of play, and generally creating bystanders out of the Seattle defense. And for significant stretches, the visitors had little to no meaningful possession. Advantage, San Jose.
The Earthquakes finally capitalized on their dominance when on, of all moves, a long ball from Victor Bernardez was misplayed by defender Tyrone Mears, allowing Jordan Stewart to race into open space on the left wing. His perfectly squared pass to Wondolowski was the easiest shot the Quakes captain has seen all year, and he buried it past Stefan Frei for a deserved 1-0 lead. Unselfish passing from Stewart, emblematic of the Quakes play in the opening stanza.
Pragmatic > Pretty: Wondo’s tap-in woke up the Sounders, and the visitors pushed the Quakes on offense for the first time all evening. However, except for one close call, David Bingham and the Defenders (that’d be a cool name for an Indie band) held strong, and Jordan Morris and the... (crickets...) settled for a small number of half-chances. Ozzie Alonso was booed with every touch of the ball, and Sounders playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro was a non-factor.
The Earthquakes have made a living on defense tactics, though it has been a living that has them below the poverty (red) line in MLS. Expecting Seattle to flounder on one possession after enough is not normally a sound game plan. Still, it was the Quakes that nearly doubled their lead on a counterattack late in the half. It was not the pretty soccer of the first twenty minutes of the match, but it was getting the job done.
Switcheroo: It is customary for players to put on a fresh kit during intermission, but for the Quakes and Sounders, it appeared more to be a switch from rave green to black and blue. Seattle looked strong out of the box, batting the ball around with ease as San Jose chased the game. The Earthquakes were playing a bit higher up the field, not ceding ground as much as the visitors did in the first half, but that didn’t seem to matter. And when Andreas Ivanschitz missed a sitter six minutes in, the Quakes and Avaya Stadium breathed a collective sigh of relief.
These were not your first half Quakes, and Lodeiro began to take over for the Sounders. But San Jose did find some of the ball, just enough at times to keep Seattle from settling into an attacking pattern. The pendulum had swung completely to safe, rather than creative, San Jose soccer.
The 70th minute is the new 90th minute: The Earthquakes were well dug in, bunkering throughout the back line, when head coach Dominic Kinnear used his first sub of the night to bring in Shea Salinas for Cordell Cato. The Quakes needed a speedster to stretch Seattle, especially as they had tactically retreated to protect their 1-0 lead. With his first touch, a dribble into space to evade an attacker, Salinas did exactly what was needed from him, and he continued to be an outlet on the right side for the Quakes defense, almost breaking loose on a counterattack 15 minutes from time.
And then the Quakes finally broke, and their lead evaporated with one swift kick.
Catch me if you can: With the game entering the 80th minute, Lodeiro lined up a free kick from 30 yards and Sounders tall and small stacked the box. The delivery seemed to fly inches past every player on both sides, freezing Bingham, and nestling into the back of the net — reminiscent of the 2010 Eastern Conference final in Colorado — equalizing for Seattle. In hindsight, a goal by the Sounders seemed a long time coming, especially given the Quakes change in tactics. To have it come directly on a low free kick had to be frustrating.
Now, both teams kicked it into high gear, knowing a draw would only help the six teams ahead of them both in the Western Conference standings. But other than a Chad Barrett shot deflected over the bar, the final whistle soon blew on the 1-1 draw. A smattering of boos from the sold-out Avaya Stadium crowd could be heard, as a two minute spell of pretty soccer at the start of the game was not enough to satisfy the dissatisfied.