With so much talent on the roster, San Jose Earthquakes coach Frank Yallop is finding it significantly easier to be a late-game genius.
Yallop’s two substitutes at PPL Park on Saturday -- forward Steven Lenhart (above) and midfielder Marvin Chavez -- came on together with 30 minutes remaining in what had been a scoreless duel between the Quakes and the Philadelphia Union, and the coach couldn’t have asked for more in the way of impact: Chavez fed Lenhart for goals in the 76th and 93rd minutes to give San Jose a 2-1 victory.
The Quakes (6-1-1) moved three points clear atop the Western Conference and are 5-0-1 in their last six matches.
“I just felt that we had to go and win the game,” Yallop said. “If we would have kept what we were doing, I think we would have probably conceded a goal and probably not scored tonight. That’s my opinion. I thought we needed to change it up. … It worked in the end.”
Yallop easily could have started Chavez, returning from a one-game suspension, and Lenhart, who missed two games earlier this month with a strained hamstring. Yet with games looming Wednesday against D.C. United and next weekend in Vancouver, the coach kept them in reserve and stuck with the side that defeated Real Salt Lake 3-1 last week.
WATCH: Chavez, Lenhart connect for the winner
When San Jose stalled out after a solid first half, Yallop quickly made his move, pulling center midfielders Tressor Moreno and Sam Cronin in favor of Chavez and Lenhart. With Lenhart playing up top, Khari Stephenson dropped back to serve as a holding midfielder, and Chavez’ insertion at right wing allowed Rafael Baca to move into the center of the park.
“We weren’t moving the ball like I wanted us to,” Yallop said. “We didn’t stretch them. As soon as Marvin came on, he stretched them, and I think Lenny is such a force in the box. That was the difference in the game.”
For Lenhart, it was his second multi-goal as a substitute on the Union’s pitch; he came on in the 27th minute for Columbus against Philadelphia on Aug. 5, 2010 and scored both goals in a 2-1 Crew win.
“I’ve had some dramatic ones, but that was a good win, a good goal,” Lenhart said of his stoppage-time strike. “Whether you start or whether you come in [as a substitute], you’re still competing and trying to score.”
Lenhart had often been the center of attention for the Quakes this season without even scoring a goal before Saturday. He drew a penalty kick from an off-ball foul in Seattle last month and earned a red card on Real Salt Lake defender Jámison Olave last week. Both plays were turning points in matches San Jose ended up winning, but both also drew charges of diving from opposition supporters.
Last night put the focus back on Lenhart the player, the 6-foot-1 target man with 20 goals spread over five MLS seasons.
“He’s hard to handle in the box, he’s very good in the air. He’s tough,” Yallop said. “After we go a goal up and then concede one pretty late in the game, to come back and score the winner, especially away from home, is very good. We’re happy as a club, and very pleased for Steven Lenhart.”
More pleased, presumably, after Chavez and Lenhart combined to snag another two points for the Quakes as time ticked down. It appeared San Jose had lost that chance when Ike Opara’s 89th-minute score -- a tap-in after Lenhart headed across the face of goal -- was ruled offside.
San Jose created a corner kick in the 92nd minute, however, and after the ball was only partially cleared, Baca found Chavez lurking on the right sideline. Chavez shed Freddy Adu and Jack McInerney with a couple nifty changes of direction, then tucked a left-footed cross to the back post and just inside the Union’s 6-yard box. Lenhart’s leap split Sheanon Williams and Danny Califf, leaving goalkeeper Zach MacMath little chance.
“Watching from the sideline, I could see that there was some space out there and when I entered the game, I wanted to take advantage of that,” Chavez said through an interpreter. “The team had faith in each other that we could get the three points tonight and we pushed to the end and got them.”
For San Jose, it was a second consecutive week with a game-winning goal after 90 minutes had elapsed; Simon Dawkins and Chris Wondolowski broke through in stoppage time last week to beat 9-man RSL.
“It’s magic,” Lenhart said. “We are finding a way to get it done and these games are important to win. You control a lot of the game, and you lose a lead, but we stuck it out. It’s good. We’re doing well.”
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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