San Jose Earthquakes' switch to ground attack a success in win over Houston Dynamo

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – The San Jose Earthquakes will likely have to make do without Chris Wondolowski for at least another three matches.

Sunday night might have given them a blueprint for how to do that.

Even with Steven Lenhart returning from a seven-game absence due to a sprained knee ligament, the Quakes tried to play through balls on the ground rather than looking to dominate in the air against a depleted Houston Dynamo backline.

The result? Just the second three-goal performance for San Jose in 11 matches this season and a much-needed 3-0 victory for the Quakes at Buck Shaw Stadium.

“Our game plan was to try to get balls in behind so Yannick [Djalo] could run on and Lenny could run on,” said Khari Stephenson, who scored the first brace of his MLS career. “We didn’t get that much going in terms of that, but we created chances and we scored goals, and that’s what’s important in any game.”

It was San Jose’s first win by three goals in MLS play since Oct. 6, 2012, when Wondolowski bagged a hat trick as part of a 4-1 victory against Colorado. The last time the Quakes had won by three without Wondolowski taking part was Aug. 16, 2008, in a 4-0 win over New England.

“Whether Wondo’s playing or [if someone’s] coming in for him, I think we can do the job,” defender Jordan Stewart said. “We’ve got Lenny, [Alan Gordon], Billy Schuler and Mike Fucito. I believe if any of them come in, they can do the job. We see it every day in training, so that’s not really a problem. The problem was creating the chances for them. … I thought that we created more. The movement was better in the final third.”

The ground game did set up the Quakes’ first two goals, if a bit indirectly. Stephenson’s 36th-minute pass for a breaking Lenhart forced a back pass from David Horst that was scooped up by Houston goalkeeper Tally Hall, giving San Jose an indirect free kick just outside of the six-yard box. Shea Salinas tapped the ball for Stephenson, who slammed it to the far corner.

Lenhart’s hustle to win a through pass from Djalo put him in position to win a penalty off of Corey Ashe in the 57th minute, setting up Stephenson for his second goal.

It was a productive night for the Quakes’ revamped frontline. Lenhart was making his first appearance since March 29, and Djalo came back after three games lost to a muscle strain. In addition, Salinas was back on the wing after finishing his one-game suspension.

The presence of that trio perhaps afforded more room for Stephenson to work out of his central midfield pairing alongside Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi.

“From the first time he was part of the stating XI, he’s done really well for us, and given us something we maybe haven’t had in the past,” head coach Mark Watson said of Stephenson, who was brought back to the Quakes after departing as a salary-cap victim in 2013.

“His performances have been good, he’s been really good on the ball, he’s been going past people. We know he’s very dangerous going to goal, and he showed that tonight. … He’s a central midfielder that can score goals. That’s something that we want.”

Will it be enough to cover the absence of Wondolowski, who will certainly be gone for the Quakes’ road matches on May 31 (FC Dallas) and June 7 (Toronto FC) and may not be back in time for the June 28 California Clasico with the LA Galaxy at Stanford?

“I think everyone knows the situation, and everyone’s giving a little bit extra knowing that Wondo scores most of our goals,” Watson said. “I think they’ve taken that on themselves to try to do that as a unit. Tonight was a good example of that.”