In the wake of Chris Leitch’s last-ditch tackle and ensuing red card, San Jose fought with only 10 men for the final 37 minutes of their season-opening 3-0 loss to Real Salt Lake at Buck Shaw Stadium on Saturday night [WATCH HIGHLIGHTS HERE].
But to the Earthquakes, it felt like the defending MLS Cup champions were holding a man advantage for much longer than that.
A swarming RSL midfield did exactly what it set out to do against a confused San Jose unit, dominating possession and creating chances that led to a pair of goals from Javier Morales and a third from Fabián Espíndola.
“We were having trouble with second balls, just because they were putting so many [players] around the ball,” Earthquakes defender Jason Hernandez said after the match. “It seemed like at times they had an extra man in the midfield, and they were creating trouble for us.”
You could make the argument the Earthquakes defense wasn’t as bad as all that, pointing out that Morales’ goals came on a pair of unstoppable shots, blasted into the upper corner of the far post with no chance for goalkeeper Joe Cannon.
But after all the work that went into retooling the back line and reformatting the midfield not to give up possession so easily, the Quakes weren’t willing to let themselves off the hook.
“There’s not much that I can say, positively, defensively,” San Jose coach Frank Yallop said. “It looked like defensively, we were a shambles.”
After watching his team pot three goals on the road for the first time since winning 3-2 against San Jose in Buck Shaw in Sept. 2008, Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis admitted the obvious: Yes, there are still holes in the Earthquakes defense that can be exploited.
“But let’s be honest," Kreis explained. "It’s early days in the season, and some of that is going to come through being together for a little bit longer period of time. And, offensively, I think we’re a pretty good team. We can cause some troubles.”
Rookie center back Ike Opara looked shaky at times while making his MLS debut in the starting lineup alongside Hernandez, but the problems extended farther up the field than that. For evidence, look no further than the fact that Yallop felt the need to replace midfielders Javier Robles and Bobby Convey at the half.
Brandon McDonald came on for Robles and took over as the defensive center midfielder, hoping to provide some steel against RSL’s efficient diamond formation, which was powered by the otherworldly Morales. Joey Gjertsen replaced Convey, hoping to spark some offense on the wings.
“I wanted to put a bit of force in there,” Yallop said. “I think that Brandon added that ... I felt that when we did make the changes, it did make a difference.”
Then came Leitch’s red card, which helped blunt San Jose’s attempts to get back into the match. Perhaps if Arturo Alvarez had slipped one through in the 60th minute rather than banging it off the post, or if André Luiz’s rebound shot had been on frame instead of sailing high, things might have been different.
The Earthquakes can take some solace in the fact that they have two weeks to implement solutions and integrate new forward Eduardo into the mix before taking the field again on April 10 in Chicago. In the meantime, the memories of chasing RSL around the pitch will linger.
“Disappointing, disheartening, infuriating,” Hernandez said. “We’ve had a really strong preseason. Everything was in order to prepare us for this point, and when it counted, we didn’t show up.”
Added Cannon: “You try to take positives out of things, and I’m a pretty positive person. But, tonight, at home, losing 3-0 ... it’s embarrassing.”