A single bead of sweat trickled down the forehead of Real Salt Lake head coach Jeff Cassar as he digested the club’s sobering 2-1 loss to the San Jose Earthquakes. With a less than a month to go in the MLS regular season, the heat is dialing up on Cassar’s men to halt their slide down the league table and clinch a playoff spot.
Yet the pressure of the playoff race can be paralyzing, and rendered RSL immobile when it most mattered on Saturday night at Avaya Stadium. The Quakes know the intimidating feeling themselves, having been effectively frozen out of the playoff race over the course of a seven-game winless streak stretching back to early August.
Only now that they have nothing left to lose have they started to play again, taking advantage of RSL’s cautiousness to nip three points. Tellingly, it was the first match in a month-and-a-half in which the Quakes scored more than a single goal, with strikes from Simon Dawkins and Fatai Alashe lifting them to a spirited victory.
Real Salt Lake kept the game close courtesy of an unfortunate own-goal by David Bingham, but the Quakes had the will to fight their way back on top and stay there.
It put a positive spin on a rough seven days for the Quakes, having lost to Sporting Kansas City and Montreal Impact earlier in the week. Coach Dominic Kinnear started with Tommy Thompson and Shea Salinas out wide to throw on some fresh legs and had every reason to be pleased with the reaction from his team.
“I told the guys yesterday that I thought I’d know where we’d be tonight after the first five minutes,” said Kinnear. “After the first five minutes, I was comfortable knowing the guys would give everything they’ve got.”
The Quakes kicked off towards the Southwest end of the stadium, where the San Jose Ultras sang from minute one to ninety. After exiting the stadium in protest to new sanctions last weekend, the supporters wanted to make their presence known.
The team seemed to feed off this energy, attacking in waves early on. Shea Salinas tested RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando with a low effort early on and Chris Wondolowski should have opened the scoring in the seventeenth minute after a lucky bounce put him in on goal, only for Rimando to tip the ball wide with an incredible stop.
It took a touch of class from Dawkins to break the deadlock, the Jamaican international traded back-flick passes with Wondolowski on a quick breakaway to open up space to drill a brilliant effort past Rimando and into the side netting.
However, RSL pulled level before the end of the half courtesy of an own goal from Bingham. In the midst of a crowded penalty area, Justen Glad’s hopeful poke ricocheted off the crossbar, onto Bingham’s shoulder from behind and into the back of the net, silencing the home crowd. Given the drudgery of the past few months, the Quakes could easily have thrown the towel in.
“It was almost like: ‘Is this happening to us again!?’” said Kinnear.
“Ties have been the sore of our season,” added midfielder Fatai Alashe.
Yet the Quakes never said die. Wondolowski spearheaded the charge for a late winner, threatening on the end of Dawkins’ neat through-ball in the forty-first minute and forcing an excellent stop out of Rimando from a volley on the other side of the half.
Bingham kept the Quakes in the game with a pair of key saves to deny Joao Plata and Sunny, paving the way for Alashe to head home from Shea Salinas’ delivery in the dying embers of the game.
Instead of immediately dropping into their own half in order to preserve their lead, Kinnear brought on forwards Henok Goitom and Chad Barrett to maintain their momentum going forward.
A week ago, Kinnear might have played his cards more cautiously, but no longer is there any incentive for him to play it safe.