SAN JOSE, Calif. – The pressure at Avaya Stadium was nearly palpable. With every missed chance, every Nick Rimando save, every nearly-there or could-have-been opportunity, the San Jose Earthquakes’ home crowd grew increasingly tense as the club’s playoff hopes seemed to be slipping away.
So when Matías Pérez García finally blew the lid off the new arena with a deflected score in the 87th minute against Real Salt Lake on Sunday afternoon, it was almost understandable when the Argentinean – sitting on a yellow card and courting ejection for another transgression – yanked his shirt off in a spontaneous reaction to tallying the only goal in what would become a 1-0 Quakes victory.
San Jose thus kept pace with Portland and made up ground on Seattle and Sporting Kansas City in the chase for the Western Conference’s final spots.
“It was a really good feeling, and we really needed it, because at this point in time, each game that we play, we need a win,” defender Shaun Francis told MLSsoccer.com. “I don’t think a draw or a loss is going to help us.”
Said captain Chris Wondolowski: “It was a huge relief. We needed the full three points.”
San Jose coach Dominic Kinnear said during the week that he was leaning towards labeling this a “must-win” game as far as the Quakes’ playoff hopes went – a feeling that intensified when the sixth-place Timbers pulled out a road victory at Columbus on Saturday.
The urgency understandably built as the Quakes churned out 19 shots without reward before Pérez García finally broke through with No. 20.
“The one thing was, we didn’t stop pushing forward,” Kinnear said. “We didn’t get frustrated and put our heads down. It was a positive thing. I really liked our determination, right from the first minute. I thought we were good for a goal at halftime, and told the guys, ‘Look, let’s carry that first half over to the second half.’”
Kinnear even took a late-game gamble he has employed in the past but rarely this season, pulling Francis in favor of Sanna Nyassi in the 83rd minute and switching to a 3-5-2 in search of a game-winner. They found it four minutes later when Victor Bernárdez played a long ball for Quincy Amarikwa, who knocked the delivery down for Pérez García to run onto at 25 yards.
“A lot of credit to Dominic,” Wondolowski said. “He put us forward when he went to a 3-5-2. It’s nice to finally get bounce. … We’ll take that bounce right now.”
It was just the Quakes’ third goal this season in the final 15 minutes of regulation (plus second-half stoppage time) and the first such goal that led to a points gain for San Jose. Late tallies from Amarikwa (at Vancouver on July 26) and Wondolowski (last weekend in Yankee Stadium) served only to pretty up the final score in defeats.
“It gives us that belief again,” Wondolowski said. “I think we always had that, but it’s nice to finally pull one out at the end.”
Pérez García said he took some velocity off his shot after skying his attempt from the top of the penalty area just five minutes earlier. He knew it was going in as soon as he saw Rimando – who had turned back a point-blank chance from Wondolowski during the second half – on the ground after moving to cover the shot’s initial trajectory.
He also knew he was going to get a second yellow card immediately after peeling off his jersey.
“In the moment, I had a great euphoria,” Pérez García said through a translator. “What happened, happened. It is what it is.”
What it is is a one-game suspension, which will cost San Jose their best playmaker against Vancouver next week.
“I don’t think we can appeal that,” Kinnear said, who then joked, “I’ve seen video evidence; it’s pretty strong. . . . I don’t necessarily agree with the rule, but it is a FIFA rule, and there’s no getting away from it.”