Brandon McDonald Real Salt Lake
Don Feria

Quakes Defense Disappoints in Debut

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 on Saturday night.

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 rejiggered San Jose unit, dominating possession and creating chances that led to a pair of goals from Javier Morales and a third from Fabian Espindola.

“We were having trouble with second balls, just because they were putting so many (players) around the ball,” subdued Earthquakes defender Jason Hernandez said. “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 that 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, leaving goalkeeper Joe Cannon with no way to stop them.

But after all the work that went into retooling the back line and reformatting the midfield to be conditioned 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 September 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, 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,” Kreis said. “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 those 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 Andre Luiz’s rebound shot had been on frame, instead of sailing high, things might have been different.

Probably not, however, given that it was up to left back and captain Ramiro Corrales to provide the defense’s best moment of the night, keeping his head amidst a mad 78th-minute scramble and clearing Robbie Findley’s 8-yard attempt off the line after Cannon had to come out of the box.

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. Infurating,” 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.”

Said 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.”

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