Despite exit, Quakes lifted by perseverance vs. Toluca

When Toluca coach Jose Cardozo was last seen at Buck Shaw Stadium, he was venting mightily in the aftermath of his club’s 1-1 tie with the San Jose Earthquakes in the first half of their two-legged CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal tie last Tuesday. Cardozo lambasted the Quakes’ style of play, the quality of the officiating and even the fact that San Jose dared to use tall players.

One thing Cardozo never impugned was the Quakes’ heart. And that relentless drive almost carried San Jose to a historic road win against top-seeded Toluca on Wednesday.

The Quakes fell just short of becoming the first MLS team to knock out a Mexican side from CCL play in Mexico, losing 5-4 on penalty kicks after 120 minutes produced a 1-1 tie at Estadio Nemesio Diaz.

“Everyone’s really disappointed because we were so close, literally as close as you can come to winning a game at a very tough place,” Quakes coach Mark Watson told by phone. “But to see the effort and the commitment, for our guys to persevere for 120 minutes is incredible. I think it shows what a great group we have and it’s very encouraging for the future.”

What made the missed opportunity even more keenly felt was that San Jose followed their game plan to near perfection despite a flood of injuries that decimated the Quakes’ ranks of defenders. With six first-choice possibilities sidelined due to suspension (Victor Bernardez) or injury (Brandon Barklage, Clarence Goodson, Andreas Gorlitz, Jason Hernandez and Jordan Stewart), Watson had to cobble together a back line on the fly -- literally.

“We had an hour on Tuesday to work together,” said Watson, whose club only arrived in Toluca earlier that day. “A bunch of guys that had never played in the back before, to come together that quickly, it’s pretty incredible.”

Cordell Cato, normally an attack-minded winger, was plugged in again at right back. Shaun Francis retained his spot on the opposite side. In the middle were Ty Harden -- a man coming off season-ending hip surgery in 2013, playing his first competitive game in nearly a year -- and JJ Koval, a rookie from Stanford and defensive midfielder by trade.

With that group leading the way, the Quakes were able to hold a powerful Toluca attack -- spearheaded by Raul Nava, the CCL’s leading scorer, as well as last season's leading scorer in Liga MX, Pablo Velazquez -- at arm’s length for much of the evening. Despite being outshot 11-5 in terms of attempts on target, San Jose took the lead on Harden’s 56th-minute header and nearly won the game when Alan Gordon found the net in the 96th, only to be ruled offside.

“That was the way we set it up,” Watson said. “We knew we were going to concede a lot of possession, and we did. But we knew we were going to get chances, too, and we did. A little call or a bounce here, and we could have had a second goal.

“But give credit to those guys to stick to the plan. It comes down to understanding the plan but also being able to do the work. And I don’t think people realize how difficult it is to play for 90 minutes, let alone 120 minutes, at this stadium and at this altitude. It’s a huge physical commitment.”

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