Defensive emphasis pays off as Quakes take series lead
San Jose Earthquakes coach Frank Yallop said Friday it would “be a shock” if his team finished the first leg of its Western Conference Semifinal in a scoreless duel with the LA Galaxy.
Sunday night, it appeared Yallop’s shock was just as phony as that of Captain Renault in Casablanca upon his discovery of gambling at Rick’s Café – just before being handed his own winnings.
San Jose succeeded at stealing a 1-0 result in the 94th minute when Víctor Bernárdez’s 30-yard free kick rocketed off the shin of Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez and slipped underneath the desperate dive of LA goalkeeper Josh Saunders.
Before that, however, the Quakes – scorers of a franchise-record 72 goals during the regular season – seemed perfectly content to waltz out of the Home Depot Center with a 0-0 scoreline to take back to Buck Shaw Stadium for the series finale Wednesday.
For his part, Yallop said it wasn't the Quakes' mission, simply a byproduct of a rededication to team-wide defending that San Jose underwent in training last week.
“I think it was a very mature away performance,” Yallop said. “We didn’t want to concede a goal. ... At this point, you’ve got to make sure you do that. We worked all week on defending.”
On a night when the Goonies’ leading men – the 50-goal trio of Chris Wondolowski, Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon – were kept mostly muzzled, it was up to the Quakes’ oft-overlooked defense to do the heavy lifting. Bernárdez and Jason Hernandez were up to the task in the middle of San Jose’s back line, marshaling the Quakes’ troops with aplomb even as LA enjoyed a 62-38 possession advantage in the second half.
This was San Jose’s first clean sheet in seven matches against MLS opposition, and just their third league shutout since July 14. Having watched, in person, Vancouver frustrate the Galaxy for much of those teams’ Knockout Round match, it felt like Yallop – who started the defensively stout Ramiro Corrales at left mid over speedier option Shea Salinas – gleaned a weakness in LA’s high-wattage attack.
The Galaxy were held without an official shot on net until the 66th minute, and finished with just two on the evening.
“If you look at the team defending, I thought it was excellent,” Yallop said. “I thought our work rate was great. They pushed on in the second half, were a little bit unlucky not to score, but I think in general, to keep them off the shot chart for 60-odd minutes was pretty good.”
Galaxy coach Bruce Arena fulminated over the nature of the call that led to Bernárdez’s free-kick chance, saying flatly there was “no foul” on the collision between LA’s Marcelo Sarvas and San Jose’s Simon Dawkins. But the hosts really should have been ruing their inability to punch home a go-ahead goal against the Quakes long before that whistle.
“We knew it was going to be a hard task,” Quakes defender Justin Morrow told MLSsoccer.com. “We’ve given up a lot of goals to them this year [seven in three matches], but I said ... if we got down in this game, then it would have been a lot harder for us to come back than it has in the past. So I think we came together as a team, played really well as a team and the hard work got us out of here.”
LA had a number of near-misses that didn’t quite come to fruition – most often because of timely interventions from Bernárdez or Hernandez. It was a far cry from the way the Galaxy repeatedly shredded the Quakes’ defense with through balls in the teams’ final regular-season meeting on Oct. 21.
“Víctor’s been a stalwart all year,” Quakes forward Chris Wondolowski said. “I thought our defense played well. I thought him and Jason were amazing back there. They kept us organized. They had a tough matchup. There’s so much interchanging and so much movement. It’s tough to stay with those guys. But they stood up to the challenge.”
Now, the Quakes have 90 more minutes of challenge to get through before booking a place in the Western Conference Championship. All that’s needed is a win or a tie against LA, who have now gone 0-3-1 this season against San Jose.
“We know we can beat them, but this next one is going to be the most important,” Morrow said. “None of those other four matter if we don’t win this next one, get a result that we need. I think they’re thinking that, too. They only need one to win and then they ruin our season.”
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.