ALEX KURIAL - Thursday, October 24, 2013
The San Jose Earthquakes have emerged victorious in Group 5 of the CONCACAF Champions League, securing a spot in the quarterfinals with a shutout win over Heredia.
It was a quick reversal of emotions for the Earthquakes, who just three days earlier had seen their MLS playoff hopes come to an almost certain end. San Jose's spirited performance on Wednesday however ensures that they will be playing soccer beyond this weekend's regular season finale.
For the first hour of play at Buck Shaw Stadium it looked as though the home side and its fans were set to endure more heartbreak. San Jose had to win to progress, while Heredia were in position for a tie to see them through. The Guatemalan side used this to their advantage, hardly venturing upfield while parking the proverbial soccer bus in front of goalie Jose Calderon.
Finally though San Jose was able to break down the stifling five-defender formation, the 62nd minute strike coming courtesy of the reliable foot of Chris Wondolowski. The buildup consisted of a Steven Beitashour ball across the box, which was delivered back across to the right by Shea Salinas. Wondolowski found himself on the end of the return and proceeded to drive the ball into the net for the hard fought lead. The goal was Wondolowski's second of the tournament, both of which have been game winners.
There were a few anxious moments for San Jose after the goal as Heredia were forced to press, most notably a Charles Cordoba equalizer just four minutes from time. The forward was deemed offside however, leading to heavy Heredia protest. More drama ensued in the 94th minute when Clarence Goodson was ejected for time wasting, but San Jose was able to survive the final moments with 10 men to seal their advancement.
San Jose, Heredia, and the Montreal Impact all finished 2-2-0 for six points in group play. It was San Jose's superior +2 goal differential that sealed their spot in the next round, the biggest contributor being a 3-0 home win over Montreal on Sep. 17. Heredia and Montreal each finished at -1.
This will be San Jose's third appearance in the knockout stage of the continental tournament, and first since 2004. That year saw the Earthquakes bow out to Costa Rican side Alajuelense 3-1 on aggregate, though they did manage a victory in the home leg. Their previous venture in 2002 ended at the hands of Mexican squad Pachuca by the same scoreline, with San Jose again victorious in their home fixture.
San Jose remains at home for their season finale against FC Dallas on Saturday. Barring a miracle playoff appearance, the Earthquakes will receive a few months off before the quarterfinals start up in the new year.