The Surprise Team: Quakes take it in stride

[MLS SPOTLIGHT] San Jose won just eight of 34 games in 2011 but has already this season has won five, including a 1-0 victory in Seattle and a 3-1 victory over Real Salt Lake on Saturday that moved it ahead of RSL in the Western Conference standings. But the surprise team of the MLS season so far isn't surprised at all by its success.

Two goals in stoppage time propelled San Jose to a wild 3-1 triumph over Real Salt Lake Saturday night at Buck Shaw Stadium that also enabled the Quakes (5-1-1, 16 pts.) to take the Western Conference lead.

True, San Jose needed those last-gasp goals to finally subdue a nine-man team that had first lost a player in the 29th minute with the score 0-0, yet even at that stage the teams had looked rather even. There’s no telling how the evening would have played out had not referee Elias Bazakos expelled Fabian Espindola for a two-footed tackle in the first half, and defender Jamison Olave for a solid challenge on Steven Lenhart that Bazakos deemed to be a foul denying a clear goalscoring opportunity in the 69th.

Two minutes into stoppage time, Simon Dawkins knifed into the penalty area to head home the winner, and two minutes later Chris Wondolowski took a share of the league scoring lead by nailing his eighth goal. This result, warped sharply by the numerical disadvantage, can’t be classified as definitive, which Coach Frank Yallop and his players were quick to point out though the win did snap a five-game winless streak against the 2009 MLS Cup champion and was accomplished with several regulars – Shea Salinas, Victor Bernardez, Ramiro Corrales, Martin Chavez – sidelined with injuries or suspensions.

Khari Stephenson, who started the match at forward and finished it as the holding midfielder, scored the first goal with a sharp header and set up Wondolowski for the clincher with a delicately scooped flick. Tressor Moreno got just his second start and sprayed numerous lobs and chips into good spaces. Third-year defender Ike Opara took a centerback spot and helped keep Alvaro Saborio relatively quiet. Regular right back Steven Beitashour assisted on the goals by Stephenson and Dawkins, and rookie Sam Garza helped energize the attack, along with the insertion of rugged forwards Alan Gordon and Lenhart, in his first MLS appearance.

“The team had a lot of changes to the lineup tonight, but it didn’t stutter,” said Yallop, who celebrated his 100th MLS coaching victory with his several relatives, including his father, in the stands. “We come out of the gate and we talked about it all week, it was an opportunity for some guys that have not played too much this year. I said to them, ‘It’s not you’re not second-rate, you’ve not had a chance to play.’ The team’s done well, it’s flowed, and we’ve got results, so you don’t really tend to change that.”

What has changed from last year’s dismal 8-12-14 season is considerable, and not just in the standings. Known mostly since it was reconstituted by the league prior to the 2008 season as a quick-strike, counterattacking team, San Jose is now geared more toward possession and combination play. Midfielder Rafael Baca, a native of Mexico who played at Loyola Marymount and latched onto the Quakes when he was passed over in the 2011 SuperDraft and Supplemental Draft, has forged a fluid yet resilient partnership with former TFC mid Sam Cronin. Bernardez can play the ball out of the back, and the comfort on the ball of several outside backs opens up those outlets as well.

“There’s a confidence and a belief that we can play,” says goalkeeper Jon Busch, who manned the nets during the team’s playoff run in 2010 and in 33 of 34 games in 2011. “Last year, I don’t know if we believed we could play. This year, even when the games are tough, we want to play the right style of soccer, and so far in seven games, we’ve done it, whether it’s on the road or at home.”

Properly evaluating the 2012 Quakes requires examining the body of work, albeit a limited sample size. On March 31, they knocked off the Sounders, 1-0, at Century Link Field, and last weekend rallied twice from one-goal deficits to tie the Red Bulls, 2-2, in their plush arena. A 1-0 home loss to Houston in their second game of the season has been followed by five games unbeaten yet serves as a reminder of how far this team, and 2012, has still to go, and that it can’t rely on a referee’s red-card binge to turn the tables.

“From the moment we stepped in, we knew,” said Wondolowski of a confidence he felt when preseason training began. “We had a talk about it. We knew things are going to be different, and we’re taking the steps to make them different, just the little things.

“To be honest, I feel that we’re better than 2010. That was one of those teams where we just fought and scrapped. This year, we have that same mentality where we can fight and scrap but we have a little bit more talent all across the board. We have the right chemistry and the players to continue it.”

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