SANTA CLARA, Calif. - The San Jose Earthquakes, fighting to keep pace in the chase for the MLS postseason, dispatched of Eastern Conference leaders Sporting Kansas City 1-0 Sunday night in front of a sellout crowd of 10,525 at Buck Shaw Stadium.
A second half goal from Chris Wondolowski, his eighth of the season, gave the home side hope that a late season run to the playoffs was still in the cards for the defending Supporters' Shield winners.
"If Wondolowski gets chances, he will score goals," said interim head coach Mark Watson. "The big thing for us is if we can be tougher to break down and not concede goals, we're going to allow Wondo to win us games."
Stellar defensive work from the Earthquakes (9-10-6, 33 points) limited the usually dangerous Sporting KC (11-8-6) to only 3 shots on target. The complete team effort earned the Quakes their third shutout in 5 matches dating back to a similar Wondo-nothing victory against the Seattle Sounders on July 13.
"Our defense played a great game," said Wondolowski. "We kept our defensive shape and were hard to break down. Kansas City is a tough team, especially on attack, but we were happy to play at home and come away with three points."
The clean sheet win was especially important for goalkeeper Jon Busch, who, on the same night that he celebrated his 37th birthday, collected his 100th career MLS victory. Reaching the century mark was certainly an accomplishment that was not lost on his coach.
"Fantastic," said Watson. "That takes a long time to get a 100 wins. It's a testament of quality over time. We're very fortunate to have Buschy."
"That is a great accomplishment and proves that hard work pays off," added Wondolowski. "Buschy is so a true professional, comes in and works hard everyday. I couldn't be happier for him. He definitely deserves it."
Busch has collected 40 wins for the Earthquakes since his arrival in San Jose prior to the 2010 season. The first 60 wins of his career came during time spent with the Columbus Crew (2002-06) and the Chicago Fire (2007-09).
"It makes me feel old," quipped Busch. "It's quite an accomplishment especially when you look at the guys in that club. It's humbling and I'm honored to be on that list of guys with 100 wins."
Still, Busch has never made the results about him, and even though it was his birthday, he was quick to state the real significance of the victory that the record books will show pushed his career total to 100.
"For me, the most important thing was getting three points and keeping ourselves in the playoff hunt," said Busch. "That was the only birthday present I wanted."
With 9 games left in its season, San Jose likely needs another 6 victories to make a reasonable case for the postseason, but in beating the best team in the East, the Quakes served notice to the rest of the West that despite sitting eighth in the conference they were not ready to concede the season.
Neither team looked dangerous in the opening quarter hour of the match as each side probed forward with long passes in the attacking third but couldn't unlock the opposing defense. Twice in the span of three minutes, starting in the 18th, Sporting KC sent in long shots on target, but twice Busch made comfortable saves to preserve the scoreless tie.
The Quakes first scoring opportunity came in the 27th minute when a searching ball across the area from Jordan Stewart found the head of Victor Bernardez. The Honduran directed the ball back across the six-yard box to his center back partner Clarence Goodson, playing in an advanced position following an earlier corner kick, but the U.S. international sent his shot wide of the goal.
Kansas City, always physical in aerial challenges, was adjudged on two occasions to have used excessive force against Wondolowski on 50/50 balls. Perhaps trying to test to see if the real Wondolowski had a bobblehead much like the prize given away to many in the sold-out Buck Shaw crowd, Chance Myers and Aurelien Collin each saw yellow cards from referee Juan Guzman for clattering into the Quakes star forward.
Following the caution to Collin, Marvin Chavez delivered the resulting free kick into the mixer where Goodson aimed a headed shot to the far post. Instead of celebrating his first goal as an Earthquake, Goodson could only watch as goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen made a spectacular reaction save to paw the ball to safety.
Just prior to the halftime whistle, the Earthquakes had a third scoring chance courtesy of their center back tandem go wanting when Nielsen made a fine catch save on a bullet free kick from Bernardez 25 yards from goal.
The Quakes finally broke through the resolute Sporting KC defense in the 55th minute through some tenacious play from Steven Beitashour. With some sustained pressure in the attacking third, Sam Cronin tried to deliver a ball into the area, but his pass was deflected high into the air. Racing in from his overlapping position on the right sideline, Beitashour lunged to one-touch the loose ball back across the mouth of goal.
"I was in the right spot at the right time," said Beitashour. "The ball floated up nicely for me, and I tried to put it into the mixer for the guys."
Wondolowski, with a window of opportunity afforded him because of his advanced position in the area, leaped high to head a shot back across goal and just out of the reach of Nielsen to give the Earthquakes a 1-0 lead.
"The ball got deflected out to Beitashour," said Wondolowski, "which opened up a little bit of space for me, and he put in a great cross."
The message all week had been that San Jose needed to generate better quality service into the area if it was to have approach the scoring levels of last year's team. The finishers have been ready, and Beitashour's cross was right on the money.
"I had a pretty good feeling," said Beitashour. "Right when I saw him running toward it, I had a smile on my face. Wondo does what he does, score goals. I was very happy to see him put it away."
Kansas City brought in a pair of young substitutes to boost its offense following the San Jose goal as seldom used forwards Teal Bunbury and C.J. Sapong entered the game. Content to absorb possession from Sporting while looking to counterattack, the Earthquakes defense was very effective in protecting its slim one goal lead. And even when the visitors advanced into the area, Bernardez and Goodson were there to clear every ball.
San Jose had scant chances to salt the game away, the most egregious miss came in the 85th minute when Rafael Baca broke through the Kansas City defensive line and sent a low shot wide of the post, but that didn't matter in the end as they held on for a very important 1-0 victory.
The Earthquakes continue their push to qualify for the playoffs when they visit FC Dallas next Saturday evening and the LA Galaxy a week later. Following the road trip, which includes a midweek visit to Heredia of Guatemala as part of the CONCACAF Champions League group stage, San Jose returns to Buck Shaw Stadium on September 8 against the Philadelphia Union.
And on the heels of a successful Wondolowski bobblehead night as part of the 1-0 win against Sporting KC, the Quakes announced Sunday that their next home game, against the Union, will feature a promotion that seems almost too good to be true: Steven Lenhart Chia Pet night.