In a match with crucial implications for the MLS Western Conference standings, the San Jose Earthquakes made an emphatic statement on Saturday night at Buck Shaw Stadium, where Chris Wondolowski's hat trick paced a 5-0 drubbing of Real Salt Lake.
The encompassing win sees the Earthquakes (12-4-4) go four points clear of the 2009 MLS Cup winners (11-6-3) atop the West. Salt Lake remain in second place with 36 points on the season.
“I felt we were in charge of the game from the opening whistle,” Earthquakes manager Frank Yallop said after the match. “I really didn’t feel any doubt that we weren’t going to win this game. I felt we bossed everything; we took charge of everything in the match. I felt really good about it.”
Boss the game they did, particularly after the 57th minute, when Salt Lake were reduced to 10 men when midfielder Kyle Beckerman, a frequent inclusion in the U.S. men’s national team set up for several years now, chopped down Earthquakes midfielder Sam Cronin, who had just touched the ball out into play after seeing Salt Lake midfielder Javier Morales go down with an apparent injury.
A scrum ensued, with Earthquakes players rushing to the aid of their teammate, who was beset upon by a number of Salt Lake players.
Pushing and shoving resulted in a medley of yellow cards—at least three when all was said and done, excluding one for Victor Bernardez that was later rescinded—but the ‘Quakes’ response sent a message to their opponents. After huddling up as a team for the second time that night, they embarked upon a thoroughly dominant stretch in the match.
“It was definitely a turning point,” Cronin said afterwards. “Playing with 10 guys is always tough, so it was a fortunate turn of events for us.”
Nursing a 1-0 lead at that point, San Jose surged toward the finish, putting four more goals past a foundering Salt Lake defense that grew increasingly ragged as the match wore on.
MLS leading goalscorer Wondolowski, who’d opened his account as early as the 18th minute, notched his 15th, 16th and 17th goals of the season. It was his fourth game with multiple goals in 2012, his first since a May 2, 5-3 thriller of a win against DC United.
“We had some great finishes tonight,” Yallop said. “I was really pleased with “Wondo’s” hat trick, and Alan Gordon scoring, it’s obviously a joy. Simon (Dawkins) scored as well, and he’s a great player.”
Wondolowski at His Opportunistic Best
While the Earthquakes had the better chances in the first half, Real Salt Lake had the lion’s share of the possession, and were bossing the game about in midfield.
Wondolowski very nearly opened the scoring as early as the fourth minute, when his half-volley was parried away by keeper Nick Rimando.
As is often the case, the dynamic forward wasn’t seeing the most time on the ball—he began dropping deep into midfield to do so—but he was looking in the Salt Lake final third.
When center-back Jamison Olave’s hacked clearance fell to the Earthquakes' No. 8, Wondolowski chested down before firing his left-footed effort just wide of Rimando’s left-hand post.
A goal was coming, and in the 18th minute Wondolowski finally got it. Marvin Chavez’s outswinging corner pinballed around the penalty area, with Justin Morrow heading back across goal to Gordon, who deviated the ball back to the arriving Wondolowski, who headed home at the far post.
The Earthquakes briefly took the momentum, but Salt Lake’s three-man central midfield, which Cronin described as “narrow,” was clamping down quickly and denying the Earthquakes central midfield duo of Cronin and Rafael Baca time to dictate play.
Alan Gordon, who once again took Steven Lenhart's place in the starting lineup (Lenhart is still recovering from a concussion), served as an outlet for the Earthquakes, who were unable to build through midfield and thus forced to play long balls up toward Gordon.
“They do a very good job of clogging the middle, and they’re a good team, but ‘Rafa’ and I have to do a better job of switching play against a team that plays so narrow,” Cronin said. “It was definitely better in the second half though.”
A Hat Trick for the MLS Leading Scorer
Wondolowski certainly helped with that effort, but before he etched his name once more on the goal sheet, Alan Gordon made it 2-0 Earthquakes in the 63rd minute.
Chavez once again was behind the goal’s creation, sending in a corner to center-back Victor Bernardez, whose header caromed off the far post and right into the path of Gordon, who could not miss from close range.
If Salt Lake had entertained any notions of a possible comeback before, even while playing with 10 men, their spirits were well and truly broken after Gordon’s goal.
San Jose quickly began looking for a third—Yallop made sure to point out that he makes sure his team never deviates from that scoring endeavor—and after very nearly getting it in the 68th minute, when Gordon very nearly picked out Wondolowski with a curling cross in behind the defense, just four minutes later they found the mark.
Winger Shea Salinas did well to ghost past a hapless Kenny Mansally on the right flank, pushing toward the end line before centering toward the near post, where Wondolowski arrived to nudge home past Rimando.
Dawkins added his name to the goal sheet in just his first game back after some two-and-a-half weeks out due to injury. Off a Salinas corner this time, Wondolowski got enough of a touch to nudge the ball across goal, where Dawkins met it and smashed into the back of the net to make it 4-0.
“I felt good—it’s only been two-and-a-half weeks since I’ve been out, so I didn’t feel I’d lost any fitness,” Dawkins said. “The guys did really well to build a lead. It was an easy game for me to come into, so I was pretty happy.”
San Jose’s talismanic forward finally made it five, adding that 17th goal of the season (in just 18 games played, mind you) when he was played in behind a sliding Mansally and Olave by substitute Khari Stephenson in the 80th minute. Wondolowski took a touch after collecting and fired low across Rimando’s right to cap his historic night.
Substituted seconds later, Wondo received a rousing reception from the sellout crowd of 10,744 on hand.
The Earthquakes were in total control, dictating play and maintaining possession for minutes on end in the final portions of the match before the final whistle went.
Baca and Cronin Again Terrific in Midfield
Wondolowski called the central pairing "the team’s best players since the Los Angeles match on June 30," and after watching Cronin and Baca dictate play with aplomb against Salt Lake—particularly in the second half—it was hard to disagree with him.
“Those two cover so much ground, and it makes other players’ jobs so much easier, especially mine,” Wondolowski said. “I appreciate what they do out there.”
"I hate to single people out, but I thought Rafael Baca and Sam Cronin were great in the center of our midfield," Yallop said. "They bossed it, they made sure it was busy. It’s very difficult to play against Salt Lake’s midfield, but they were clean on the ball."
Yallop said the team had talked before the match against FC Dallas last Saturday about the importance of maintaining clean sheets, and after tonight’s victory, the team has two in its past two games. (The Dallas match ended in a goalless draw.)
"I thought we did a great job against Dallas and again tonight of not conceding chances," Yallop said. “I can’t remember a chance that Salt Lake had where they should have scored. That’s what I look at. Dallas had a couple, but I don’t remember Jon Busch scrambling and being forced to make a save tonight."
Fabian Espindola, who was one of the players carded in that Beckerman-induced scrum, very nearly caught Busch out at his near post in the 16th minute, but aside from one half-chance with a near-post cross, Salt Lake mounted very little in the attacking third, even before going down to 10 men.
After enduring a brutal run of six games in 18 days from the end of June to early July, the Earthquakes had a week off before Saturday’s match. Yallop said the extra time allowed the team to get a “proper practice in,” as opposed to simply nursing niggling injuries and resting players with so little time between fixtures.
With a Wednesday night match against FC Dallas on the agenda, the Earthquakes again will have little time for repose.
Despite the magnitude of the win over their nearest contenders for the Western Conference crown, both Yallop and Wondolowski were adamant about the importance of not getting ahead of the schedule.
"They’re not an arrogant group," Yallop said. “They’re a confident group with very big self-belief. They feed off each other. The group’s together, and they’re buoyant and very pleased in the place they’re at, but they’re certainly not overconfident.
"We want to win the next game, and on and on. We don’t think we’ve made the playoffs yet, because we haven’t. We still feel that we’ve got a certain barrier we need to get over. That’s what drives our guys on."
"To be first place after Week 20 is pretty good, but there’s still a lot of season left," Wondolowski said. "We’ve just got to keep hitting our stride."
Forward Steven Lenhart was kept out for the second consecutive match due to concussion symptoms. It wasn’t clear whether he would be able to return on Wednesday.
All quotes used in this article were obtained at the game through personal interviews.