Last weekend, the San Jose Earthquakes scored on three free kicks en route to a 4-0 thrashing of Chivas USA. A thundering blast from Victor Bernardez and a pair of well-placed beauties from Ramiro Corrales set off a spirited debate as to where they ranked in the annals of Earthquakes set piece goals. And while all three scores were impressive, they pale in comparison to the greatest free kick goal in franchise history — Ronnie Ekelund’s back in the 2002 season.
In fact, Ekelund’s goal came exactly ten years ago today, during the first half of a late MLS regular season game played on September 7, 2002. Fittingly, in this week filled with talk about the trio of strikes against Chivas USA, memories of The Danish Gangster’s wonder-goal have percolated back into the collective consciousness of all that witnessed his kick back at Spartan Stadium.
“It’s one of the best free kicks you’ll ever see,” remembered head coach Frank Yallop, then in his first year leading the club. “Richard (Mulrooney) flicked the ball up for Ronnie to hit and you won’t see a better strike than that. What a great partnership they had.”
The Earthquakes were already leading 1-0 in the game courtesy of an early goal from Eddie Robinson when Mulrooney and Ekelund lined up over the ball 30 yards from goal. The two midfield partners surveyed the Crew defensive wall in front of them and only then made the decision to try the audacious shot attempt.
“Obviously that day I felt good about trying it,” recalled Ekelund earlier this week. “I just asked Richard to flip it up and in my mind I had planned to volley it over the wall and get some dip on it. As soon as I hit it, I knew it was struck well.”
Mulrooney’s flip of the ball actually carried it farther forward than Ekelund had planned for, but the Dane made the adjustment to step into it and hit it off the half-volley. The change of plans created a much more powerful shot, and the ball soared toward the upper 90 and ripped into the back of the net. And all from a moment of improvisation that never once was rehearsed on the training ground.
“It was definitely not something we had ever practiced,” confessed Ekelund. “It’s a half-volley and you know when you hit those right in the sweet spot you get that feeling. It happened so quickly, but I knew I had hit it really well.”
One of the best views of Ekelund’s kick was afforded to the Crew goalkeeper, who was none other than current Earthquakes ‘keeper Jon Busch. Playing in his first season in Columbus, the MLS rookie was caught a bit off guard by the kick, but admits even today that he had no chance to make the save.
“Best goal I’ve ever given up, hand’s down,” declared Busch without any hesitation in his voice. “When he first hit it and I saw it come over the wall, I thought I had a chance to make the save, but I was nowhere near it. I’ve given up a lot of goals in this league over the years but that was the best.”
The 22nd minute goal doubled the Earthquakes lead that evening, and seemed scripted to the occasion. Though late in the season, San Jose had yet to lose at Spartan Stadium and was riding an 11-0-1 home unbeaten streak. The nearly 15K fans in attendance marked the biggest crowd yet to watch the team play in 2012. However, if Ekelund and Mulrooney had never practiced that particular style of free kick before, then where did the inspiration for such an attempt come from?
“It was something I trained at when I was a younger player with the Denmark national team,” admitted Ekelund. “One of our set pieces was like that, flipping the ball up for me to volley over the wall. I felt good that day and was playing well that season, so I felt enough confidence to give it a go.”
The goal was impressive not only for its power but also its placement, and all with a level of difficulty hitting a standing ball does not present. Ekelund’s blast was recognized as the top moment of the 2002 Earthquakes season, yet it failed to win MLS Goal of the Year. Through fan voting, a Carlos Ruiz goal for the LA Galaxy took top honors that year, leaving Ekelund’s feat judged second best.
“I don’t know how it didn’t get MLS Goal of the Year that season,” exclaimed Earthquakes assistant coach Ian Russell, who was a substitute in Yallop’s squad for that match ten year ago today. “When Ronnie caught it, I had a great angle on it from my seat on the bench. It didn’t surprise me because I knew he could strike a ball so cleanly. It was the best goal I’ve ever seen live.”
Very few others in San Jose saw the kick live, as televised home games were a rarity in the early years of MLS, but for those at Spartan Stadium that day taking it all in, the memory of Ekelund’s goal will never fade. Current team captain Ramiro Corrales was there leaping onto his Danish teammate in the ensuing celebration. Yallop and Russell leapt disbelievingly from the bench and yelled lustily from the sideline. Then television analyst and current general manager John Doyle, watching from the stands on his day off, still cannot recall seeing anything quite like it.
And ten years later, long after he hung up his boots on his professional career, Ekelund remains humble about the goal, even with all the accolades and labels of franchise best. He recalls his free kick goal to open the scoring in the 2003 MLS Cup final as more important to the club, and rightfully so, but he admits that his spectacular half-volley against the Crew still means a lot to him.
“Obviously I was really pleased with that goal,” said Ekelund. “For me it was a very special free kick.”