SAN JOSE - The San Jose Earthquakes clinched first place in the Western Conference with a 1-1 draw against visiting FC Dallas on Saturday night at Spartan Stadium, remaining on track for a pair of record-setting home unbeaten streaks and staying on course to claim the Supporters' Shield, awarded to the team with the best regular-season record in the league.
After a Ramon Nunez penalty kick just before the hour, the Earthquakes appeared to be energized by a second-half fight that resulted in the ejections of defender Eddie Robinson and FC Dallas midfielder Carey Talley. Brian Ching then netted the equalizer shortly thereafter.
The result kept the Earthquakes unbeaten at Spartan Stadium on the season, and if they win or tie against Real Salt Lake on Oct. 8 at home, they will become the first team in MLS history to go through the entire season unbeaten at home. In addition, the Quakes extended their home unbeaten streak to 17 league games overall, dating back to last season, equaling the MLS record set by the Los Angeles Galaxy from July 4, 2004 to July 16, 2005.
San Jose got off to a slow start in the match as FC Dallas took on the role of the aggressor for most of the first half. Defender Alex Yi - making his MLS debut - just missed on a header from a Nunez corner kick in the sixth minute.
The Hoops came out in a 4-3-3 formation with Nunez and former Earthquakes winger Arturo Alvarez creating problems for the San Jose defense from the wide forward positions.
In fact, the two players switched sides in the early going and the left-footed Alvarez nearly hooked up with Thompson with a cross with the outside of his foot in the 14th minute. Then, just a minute later, FC Dallas nearly capitalized on a poor first touch by left back Wade Barrett, as Thompson stole the ball away and went in alone against San Jose goalkeeper Pat Onstad, but the veteran smothered the shot with a dive to his left.
The Earthquakes didn't test FC Dallas 'keeper Scott Garlick until the 22nd minute when De Rosario received a ball across the top of the box and let fly with a 21-yard shot. Garlick made the initial stop, but nearly served up a rebound to the onrushing Ching before bringing the ball to his chest.
FC Dallas continued to apply the pressure, however, and in the 27th minute, Nunez let rip with a free kick from the right angle that skimmed off the side netting just wide of the goal.
Just two minutes after that chance, Robinson chopped down striker Abe Thompson on a yellow-card challenge and the Hoops nearly made the Earthquakes pay. Nunez whipped in a free kick to the far post to Talley, but his header landed just wide left.
San Jose was unable to find a rhythm throughout the first half. Simo Valakari did an outstanding job containing Dwayne De Rosario, the Earthquakes' offensive engine, often forcing him deep into his own half of the field to collect the ball. For the half, the Earthquakes were held to just three shots total, only one on goal.
FC Dallas then took the lead in the 58th minute on a penalty kick by Nunez. The scoring opportunity was created when Nunez chipped a ball into Thompson, who outwrestled center back Danny Califf and made his way toward goal. Thompson then pushed the ball around the on-rushing Onstad, who clipped him down for an obvious penalty call. Nunez converted with a drive into the upper left corner.
Following the underwhelming performance in the first half and then falling behind, the Earthquakes appeared to be energized by the fracas shortly afterwards.
The incident started when Robinson overreacted to a foul against him by Nunez along the left sideline. Robinson hip-checked Nunez into the board, causing Talley to respond by racing over and kicking the ball at him. The San Jose center back then took a swipe at Talley, and the veteran midfielder retaliated. Both players were sent off by referee Mark Geiger and the match played out the final half-hour with both sides down a man.
Ching, making only his second start since coming back from a torn right hamstring in late June, found the net in the 68th minute to bring the Earthquakes level.
The play began with a shot by Ricardo Clark that deflected off Dallas defender Steve Jolley out to Brian Mullan along the right endline. Mullan drove the ball off Garlick's hand to the back post, where Ching took advantage of a failed clearance by Drew Moor to squeeze the ball into the left corner with a slide.
San Jose nearly forged ahead just two minutes after Ching's goal but Mark Chung chipped over an empty net off a nice pass from Dwayne De Rosario.
Then the Quakes had a last-gasp attempt as they went racing forward with a 3-on-2 deep into stoppage time, but Ian Russell was hauled down as he tried to round a defender and burst into the box. But De Rosario's free kick crashed into the wall.
MLSnet.com Man of the Match: Ramon Nunez
Danny Kadah is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.