It took a full 120 minutes before Ike Opara could wipe out three years of bad US Open Cup history for the San Jose Earthquakes.
Opara’s goal in the final minute of overtime didn’t just secure a 1-0 victory over the Portland Timbers in USOC qualifying play on Tuesday night. It also gave the Quakes their first win in this competition since the club was reformed in 2008 and, most importantly, delivered some hope to San Jose after three straight losses in MLS play pushed them to the bottom of the Western Conference standings.
“It definitely means a lot,” Quakes star Chris Wondolowski said. “I think it’s just good for the morale for the locker room. Portland’s a really tough place to play, the atmosphere’s unreal and Portland’s a good team. It’s a good one that we can really build on.”
After the team was knocked out of USOC qualifying last year by Real Salt Lake in a penalty shootout, Opara spared the team such a fate this team around. Yes, the game-winner was more of a ricochet off the center back’s neck, but it was also a culmination of several strong scoring chances for San Jose.
And given that the Quakes had scored only one goal during their three-game MLS losing streak – and watched Steven Lenhart’s apparent score in the 104th minute waved off for a handball infraction – Opara's breakthrough didn’t come a moment too soon.
[inline_node:335621]“We had so many chances off set pieces,” Opara told MLSsoccer.com by phone. “We had a couple of chances for myself, for [Ramiro Corrales]. I was telling Wondo after [regulation time] that if I could get one more opportunity, I would find the net.”
Opara, who tied for second on the Quakes with three goals last season despite playing only 11 matches due to injury, showed once again that he brings a danger to San Jose’s set pieces unparalleled by anyone else on the roster.
This time, Sam Cronin’s initial corner kick was headed back towards the same sideline by Portland’s defense, but Cronin collected the ball and fed it in again. He was on target with the second cross, lofting the ball to the far post, where Opara, having repeated his run, rose up and gave the ball just enough impetus to elude diving Timbers goalkeeper Troy Perkins.
“Any time he’s in the opposing box, he’s very difficult to pick up,” San Jose head coach Frank Yallop said of Opara. “His timing’s excellent and he finds the ball. Every time he plays, he seems to score. Even in preseason, he [found] the ball a lot.”
Opara also helped anchor a defense that gave a strong performance in front of backup ‘keeper Andrew Weber, who made his 2011 debut. Weber made a couple of sprawling saves in the eighth minute to keep Portland from taking an early lead, and alertly jumped on the rebound from a stinging blast by Adam Moffat in the 86th to force OT.
It was a return to the kind of form the Quakes showed in 2010, when they notched a franchise-record 13 shutouts in 30 regular-season matches.
“I wouldn’t say [it’s a] relief,” Yallop said. “At some point you know as a team you’re going to get it together and get a win. I felt a little bit frustrated last weekend, when I felt we should have had a tie in Philadelphia. There were no real chances, and the referee calls a penalty that wasn’t a penalty and we lose the game.
“So for the last two matches, I feel we’ve had clean sheets. That’s a good trait,” he added.
The next item of the Quakes’ to-do list? Carrying that feeling into their next MLS match, set for May 11 against Vancvouer.
“For sure, we’re turning it around,” Opara said. “I think it’s coming. I think the next game will be a huge [indication] of how it’s going. Can we string together a couple of wins?”
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. On Twitter: @sjquakes