After six rounds of penalty kicks, Major League Soccer’s luck in Mexico hadn’t changed, but after Shea Salinas’s shootout try nailed Alfredo Talavera’s woodwork, San Jose had come closer than most. Succumbing in extra kicks after a 2-2 (agg.) draw, the Earthquakes bowed out of CONCACAF Champions League, but only after a 5-4 shootout sent Liga MX’s Toluca into the tournament’s final four.
It was the closet an MLS team has ever come to eliminating a Mexican side south of the border in this competition, a result few would have fathomed when San Jose’s starting XI was announced. There was no Chris Wondolowski, started on the bench with a slight hamstring problem. Alan Gordon also was kept out of the XI, though he would join the captain on the field by full-time. But Víctor Bernández was suspended, while fellow starting defender Clarence Goodson is still struggling with injury. When the team kicked off at the Estadio Nemesio Díez, rookie J.J. Koval joined Ty Harden in center defense, with Billy Schuler and Khari Stephenson also starting under do-or-die circumstances.
Perhaps that’s why Watson tried to shorten the game. In the first half, San Jose left Steven Lenhart alone up top, dropped nine into their defensive third, and tried to get to halftime without scoring a goal. Forty-five minutes later, the score was still 1-1, and while Toluca still held the away goals edge, its willingness to sit on that lead played into San Jose’s hands.
Eleven minutes after half-time, Watson’s plan came good. On a set piece from just inside Toluca’s half, Salinas (pictured) lofted a ball toward the middle of Talavera’s area. There Harden beat midfielder Wilson Thiago to finish inside the right post, giving San Jose a 2-1 lead and eliminating Toluca’s away goals edge. Though fitness and history were against them, the Earthquakes had gone in front.
The lead only lasted 13 minutes, though, before a blast from outside the area from Isaac Brizuela made it 2-2. Collecting the ball after a cleared set piece, Brizuela hit a 20-yard shot through the penalty box’s traffic and into the left side of Jon Busch’s goal, giving the San Jose keeper little chance to stop the score that took the team to penalty kicks.
Before the 120th minute, however, both teams had chances to avoid the shootout. Alan Gordon was controversially ruled offside on a ball that ended up in Talavera’s net, while San Cronin and Busch were both called on to make big saves to keep the Earthquakes alive.
In the shootout, each teams failed to covert its initial kick before making the next four, sending Thiago to the spot with the first sudden death try. Diving to his left, Busch nearly made his second save for the shootout, though the ball’s momentum eventually saw it bounce in front of the line but go under the crossbar.
Salinas, however, wasn’t as fortunate. Though Talavera guessed left, Salinas went right, only to put his try off the cross bar. After playing to a draw over 180 minutes, Toluca and San Jose were separated by only the width of a bar. The Red Devils move on. San Jose goes home.
Particularly given their shortcomings, the Earthquakes gave an effort they can be proud of, but looking at the result from the larger, league perspective, it adds to the list of disappointments Major League Soccer has endured at Mexico’s boots. Though San Jose came closer to advancing than any team that’s faced Liga opposition in Mexico in a knockout round, it ultimately came up short. As MLS pushes for greater significant, Mexico continues to hold it as arm’s length in CCL.
Are moral victories enough? Not for a league whose commissioner has tasked it with being the region’s best. Though the second half was exciting and San Jose’s effort, tactics, and results can be commended, the result was another setback for Major League Soccer, if only a small one.