The Seattle Sounders had every reason to feel confident heading into Saturday night's MLS Western Conference showdown against the San Jose Earthquakes.
Never mind that the game would be played in the cozy confines of Buck Shaw Stadium, where San Jose have been loathe to concede points this season.
Never mind that the Sounders were catching the Earthquakes on a brief dip in form—San Jose had grabbed only one point from their last possible six.
Sounders striker Eddie Johnson had scored six goals in his last seven games. His fellow forward Fredy Montero had two goals in his last three. Midfielder Mauro Rosales had six assists in his last six games.
But a taxing run of games—including Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup final, which had gone all the way to penalties before Sporting Kansas City prevailed—had forced head coach Sigi Schmid to make some key changes to his normal lineup.
Rosales and Johnson had both gone the entire 120 minutes in the Open Cup final, and Schmid decided that, given as how those two and Montero would be unable to go a full 90 minutes against San Jose, he would bring them on as impact substitutes.
The gambit nearly worked, too.
By the time 90 minutes had gone—93, to be exact, after stoppage time had been added up—the substitute Montero had added a third goal to his run, and it looked as if Seattle, which had not lost in its last six league matches, was going to push their run to seven and inch ever closer to the Earthquakes' lead atop the Western Conference standings.
Because that Montero goal—opportunistic as ever—had tied up the game at 1-1.
With just three minutes of added time having been shown by fourth official Alejandro Mariscal, it appeared San Jose were heading to a second consecutive league draw, after tying Chicago Fire 1-1 on July 28.
Everything pointed to that outcome. How could a team find a goal within a minute's time to pull them from one point to three?
But this is a different team, and this is a different season. San Jose have developed an almost ethereal capacity to, as the illustrious American Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte so perfectly put it, "find that little something extra."
Lochte recognized that, for a winner, there's always something left. You just have to find it.
And thanks to a golden, floppy-haired savior—as great a character as you're likely to find in Major League Soccer—San Jose found a way to win.
Shea Salinas had a confession to make to Steven Lenhart in the San Jose Earthquakes post-game locker room.
With the seconds tick-tocking toward zero in that final minute of stoppage time, the winger had tried to curl in his first cross, which had faltered.
"I know!" Lenhart said, hair still up in that comical off-center bob, feigning disgust as his eyes widened. "I was so mad."
While the entire Earthquakes team might not have succumbed to rage at that point, they were likely staring chagrin in the face.
Seattle’s equalizer had left San Jose staring down a run of three MLS games where they would have taken just two points from a possible nine.
With two of those games coming at home, it was a way of sputtering, and not soaring, toward the league finish line.
But this team is different. Almost Hollywood-esque in their ability to find happy endings when all looks lost, there is an indefatigable spark emanating from them that exudes the mantra, "Never say die."
The ‘Goonies’-like, never-give-up moniker, which this entire team has embraced since Lenhart coined it back in late May, fits them better than most.
"It’s happened time and time again, and I don’t think it’s something that happens all the time, but this team has just shown a great spirit and great character, and we will not stop until the final whistle," San Jose assistant manager Mark Watson would say afterwards.
(Manager Frank Yallop was serving a one-game touchline ban for his antics against Chicago on July 28, which had resulted in his expulsion.)
Watson played it cool during his post-game interview, but you could see the enthusiasm bubbling beneath. It's hard to hide a smile when you're talking about this season's San Jose Earthquakes.
But Before Lenhart, Dawkins
San Jose had opened the scoring through midfielder Simon Dawkins in the 71st minute, whose goal kick-started what had been a decidedly cagey affair up until that juncture.
Dawkins collected a bumbling ball at the right edge of the penalty area and, with his momentum taking him away from goal, fired a low shot toward the right post.
It was forceful enough, and spontaneous enough, to catch keeper Michael Gspurning off-guard. The Austrian shot-stopper could only manage a fingertip as he watched it bounce into the back of the net.
"I just saw the ball bouncing," Dawkins said afterward. "I thought, 'If I take a touch, I might not get the opportunity to score.' So I decided to hit it and thankfully it went in."
It was just returns for the Earthquakes, who had been ascendant throughout the second half. But Seattle might have felt hard-done by for not having a goal by that point.
Seattle Unable to Capitalize Upon a Good First Half
Sounders striker Sammy Ochoa twice hit the woodwork, once off an acrobatic overhead kick that left Quakes keeper Jon Busch no chance, the other time off a powerful header early into the second half.
Services were coming thick and fast from newly ordained designated player Christian Tiffert, a 30-year-old German Bundesliga veteran who had only joined the club on July 27.
While Schmid noted that Tiffert is more disposed toward midfield, with Montero and Johnson out of contention for a starting role, the manager had asked his newest charge to play as a support striker to Ochoa.
Tiffert obliged, and during the first half he was ubiquitous, exemplifying the Sounders’ dominance through a series of inch-perfect, bending right-footed services that hearkened to mind a certain English midfielder for the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Tiffert’s inclination to roam saw him filter about the vast expanses of midfield.
Normally staying in the right-hand portions, the man most recently of FC Kaiserslautern linked up well with his new teammates, playing little passes and popping up underneath the Quakes back four.
"I thought (Tiffert) was good," Schmid said. "I thought he was dangerous; he got in close to goal with that one-two pass combination, and his services off corners was very good."
Tiffert was the one providing Ochoa with those gilt-edged crosses, or providing the balls that led up to the distribution. (Ochoa's overhead kick had originated after Tiffert had had picked out winger Alex Caskey on the left with a sumptuous curling ball.)
San Jose Makes Key Half Time Adjustments
Despite Seattle’s first-half dominance, which both Watson and Dawkins readily admitted, they did not capitalize. With that small victory in tow, San Jose fired out of the gate to start the second half.
"We came in at halftime, and we thought we had done well but we thought we could do more," Watson said. "We asked players for another 15 to 20 percent; we knew we had a little more in us, and they responded. We brought a lot of energy at the start of the second half, and got on top."
"In the first half, we didn’t start very well," said Dawkins. "So in the second half, we decided to drop (Chris) Wondo(lowski) a bit more, keep the ball moving, and make them chase us more. That helped us in the second half."
Dawkins’s movement was one of the key factors in the swing.
Coupled with winger Marvin Chavez’s excellent play on the wing, the 24-year-old Englishman tucked into the center, providing an extra body in midfield to help counter Seattle’s three-man midfield, which had focused on stifling San Jose.
Salinas has called Dawkins perhaps the Quakes' best overall player, and for most of Saturday night, he embodied that moniker.
Showing a terrific ability to dribble past defenders while retaining possession, Dawkins also linked up superbly with left-back Justin Morrow, once sending Morrow down the wing with a perfectly weighted first-time pass.
"I thought Simon had another strong game tonight," Watson said. "He’s a good player, he’s got sharp feet, he’s got a great brain for the game, he sees the little angles, he gets in the right spaces. He’s someone who’s really helped us.
"He’s typically a wide player, but he has natural tendencies to come inside. We want to work him in those little areas, and I thought his quality was one of the differences in the game tonight."
That he was, but even Dawkins wouldn't have been unable to predict the way this one ended.
Despite the Earthquakes’ dominance throughout much of the second half, Schmid’s introductions of his fearsome trio of Johnson (68’), Rosales (82’) and Montero (84’) turned the game on its head.
Johnson came close with a header that glanced over the bar, but was uncommonly ineffective.
Not so with Rosales and Montero, who immediately showed their quality. Montero in particular was a handful within moments, ducking past Quakes defenders with his dribbling and using good movement to get into dangerous areas.
It was little surprise, then, that those two were involved in the equalizer.
Rosales’s cross from the right wing was headed down by Quakes central defender Victor Bernardez, but Sam Cronin, manning the goal line, couldn’t get more than a poke away as his feet gave out beneath him.
The ball skipped somewhat serendipitously for Montero, who was never going to miss from that range, and headed home past Jon Busch. It was the forward’s fourth goal against San Jose since joining Seattle in 2009.
Bent but not broken, San Jose moved quickly to start up play again. Before a minute had gone after Seattle’s goal, they had a corner.
Easy Does it For Shea
Salinas told Lenhart in the locker room that after his first failed delivery, he had decided to loft his next service in—a corner kick from the left in the 93rd minute. It would prove a judicious choice, as the approach worked to perfection.
Lenhart rose highest and directed his header across goal and past Gspurning into the back of the net. Bedlam ensued at Buck Shaw.
It was San Jose’s seventh goal this season after 90 minutes, its 17th in the final 15 minutes and, when combined with Dawkins’s strike, the 28th and 29th goals over the past half hour of games.
Unsurprisingly, San Jose leads the league in each category.
The win pushed San Jose’s record to 14-5-5, and took their point total to a league-best 47 points. Seattle dropped to 10-6-7, and currently sits at 37 points.
The win gave San Jose the first leg in the Heritage Cup, which has been in effect between the two former NASL (North American Soccer League) rivals since the Sounders entered MLS in 2009.
(Due to the unbalanced schedule in effect this year, San Jose’s 1-0 victory over Seattle on March 31 won’t count toward the Cup.) Three points were afforded San Jose on Saturday night, meaning they need only a point against Seattle on Sept. 23 to take the Cup for the first time since 2009.
If Seattle should emerge victorious, a series of complicated tiebreakers will go into effect to decide the victor.
A Night to Remember, and the Reason Why We Won't Forget it Anytime Soon
Near the end of an IBM-led hour-long panel this past Friday, titled "Box Office to Front Office," geared toward recognizing that technology is revolutionizing the sporting world, San Jose Earthquakes president Dave Kaval said something particularly insightful.
Kaval was one of four panelists invited to discuss the topic along with representatives from video game designer EA Sports, sports website Bleacher Report and IBM.
The majority of questions directed Kaval's way had to do with the new stadium the Earthquakes are currently building, which is scheduled to be in service by 2014.
He also delved into the the ways technology is currently filtering into MLS. Kaval noted the Adidas miCoach smart chip, first seen in use during the MLS All-Star game and which fits into a player’s compression jersey and tracks his movement during a game.
Yet while he was distilling the mesmerizing glut of information available at our fingertips, Kaval took a step back.
"There’s a nostalgia to the way a soccer match is played," Kaval told the audience numbering some thirty men and women clustered about a small room at IBM's San Francisco Financial District location, as well as others who were watching via a webstream.
That principle seemed to run counter to what had been discussed throughout the panel up until that point.
The Bleacher Report rep said that when he watches NFL football during the fall, it is with a television, laptop and iPad in tow. The EA Sports invitee spoke of how the interactive gaming experience will only increase as we move further into the future.
But Kaval noticed a difference in the way a soccer game flows. Perhaps it's against the tide, but most likely it possesses a certain eternal quality that will weather the technological storm.
"There’s few stops, and continuous halves of action," Kaval noted, before stressing that he wants fans’ attention geared toward the play on the field, instead of checking the latest news on their phones.
The words seemed almost prescient ahead of Saturday night’s game.
Look away, and you’d have missed Sam Cronin’s last-ditch block in the 81st minute that denied Seattle a what would have then been an equalizer, and which would have had severe implications upon the match.
Look away, and you miss Lenhart’s last-ditch heroics, the latest in what is becoming the most fortuitous "bad habit" where the Earthquakes are involved.
You could catch the highlights later, sure, recapping the action on a laminated computer screen. But it wouldn't come close to matching all the elements—crowd reaction, immediacy, etc.—that constitute the live experience and make it inimitable.
Like Don Draper once said about nostalgia in the first season of the acclaimed television series Mad Men, it’s "delicate, but potent."
You begin to realize that, as the character Lou once said while watching a baseball game in Rescue Me, sport is an awful lot like life.
Soccer is a far cry from baseball, but it can lull you into a listless sleep, should the action not come thick and fast enough your liking. That's the age-old complaint against the Beautiful Game, at least from some Americans' perspectives, after all.
But if you trust, and keep your eyes peeled—and Saturday night’s Earthquakes game got rather trying at times—there's the chance you'll witness the unforgettable. There's a chance you'll realize that this is the timeless essence of sports.
A game inspiring thousands of people. Because the victory is so much more than a simple three points in a box score. It's faith rewarded.
It’s Lenhart racing over to a pocket of the field, his teammates vaulting after him in sheer, unequivocal jubilation. It’s the ensuing celebration that captivates those 10,000 or so hardy fans who’d held out until the final whistle.
It’s the 1906 Ultras, San Jose’s vaunted group of hardened supporters, staying after the final whistle had gone.
Even though their ranks had diminished, the remaining band didn’t mind one bit. They kept chanting, kept singing, and kept jumping about. It’s a rhythm all its own, and it triggers something elemental in your mind.
Something that coincides perfectly with the message splayed out on one of their banners: No matter the results, we'll stand behind the Earthquakes. It's a loyalty rarely seen in this life.
Something catches in your throat; maybe its an inescapable side effect triggered by a potent dose of nostalgic feeling.
But this exceeds the melancholy that usually associates wistful looks back in memory. This is recognition that the moment we just witnessed is what will always keep sport alive. Which is as it should be.
Maybe, in the end, it’s simply a group of fans wrapped up in the reverie of a glorious haze, providing a closing-time tune for fans as they filter out of the stadium, hoping this night doesn’t end.
Maybe that brings you back to reality. Maybe that gives you an added fuel burst to carry you through tomorrow.
Maybe that’s a good thing.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes used in this article were gathered at the game.