If there was any silver lining from the San Jose Earthquakes’ latest trip to the Emerald City, it was that they left with their entire traveling contingent intact.
After a win last weekend that saw Shea Salinas receive a red card, Alan Gordon limp off injured and Victor Bernardez commit an act that would eventually lead to a one-game suspension from the MLS Disciplinary Commitee, the Earthquakes managed to survive their 1-0 loss Saturday to the Seattle Sounders without suffering any further roster depletions.
Combining those losses with the national-team absences of Clarence Goodson and Chris Wondolowski and an unwillingness to test still-recovering players such as Jason Hernandez, Steven Lenhart and Tommy Thompson on Seattle’s artificial surface, San Jose coach Mark Watson was left with a skeleton crew. The Earthquakes dressed only 16 players, which in turn led to a night of firsts: Newcomer Billy Schuler received his first MLS starting assignment in Wondolowski’s usual second-forward slot, Atiba Harris moved to forward after spending all season on the right wing, and Mike Fucito and Sam Garza made their initial appearances of 2014.
“Everyone’s aware of our small squad right now,” Watson told reporters. “It’s a big issue for us -- a couple more injuries and we’re in serious trouble. We obviously have games to win, but we have to [be] really careful that we take care of our guys as best we can and keep them healthy through this stretch.”
Despite having to slide Jordan Stewart inside as a partner for Ty Harden at center back and give Shaun Francis his first start in nearly two months, the Earthquakes were almost able to keep the Sounders off the scoreboard. It was a defensive performance that should give the Quakes something to build on as they prepare for continued life without Bernardez and Goodson, who each will likely miss at least three more games due to World Cup duty.
“We pride ourselves, in any team we put out, to give a good account of ourselves,” Watson said. “And I was really proud of the guys, from that side of it. We stuck together, and our guys fought right to the end. I think we’ll take a lot out of that performance to our next game on Sunday and down the road.”
It was an especially strong night for Francis, who has missed seven games with a left hamstring problem. The 27-year-old defender jumped in with a spectacular dispossession of Lamar Neagle inside San Jose’s penalty area during the first half and provided a half-save in the 84th minute -- slowing Osvaldo Alonzo’s close-range shot before goalkeeper Jon Busch covered it up.
“I felt comfortable out there,” Francis said. “I thought the back line did a really good job. We stuck to our guns and did what we had to do. It was a really good goal. There was nothing we could do about that.”
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Indeed, Obafemi Martins’ wonder chip -- off the half-volley and on the dead run in the eighth minute -- was the talk of the locker room.
“That’s a big-time finish from that angle,” Busch said. “The only place you expect him to put it is at the near post. That’s the only angle he’s got, and somehow he finds the back post. . .. I’ve seen guys try it, and usually it ends up on top of the net or out for a goal kick or whatever. He’s a world-class forward, and he proved it tonight on that one.”
The good news for San Jose is that Salinas’ reinstatement next weekend, along with the possible return of Lenhart, will go a long way towards fortifying an attack that didn’t record a shot on goal until Khari Stephenson hit a 35-yard free kick on frame in the 90th minute.
“We moved the ball really well at times,” Watson said. “I just thought we weren’t dynamic enough. We didn’t have that little bit of quality in the final third to be dangerous on the goal and get back in the game.”