San Jose Earthquakes Stun New York Red Bulls, 3-1, and Advance in MLS Playoffs
An 81st-minute goal from MLS MVP candidate Chris Wondolowski capped a stunning performance from the unheralded San Jose Earthquakes, who shocked the New York Red Bulls, 3-1, in Thursday's Eastern Conference semifinal decider and advanced, 3-2, on goals scored.
Wondolowski had been shut down, almost erased, by New York for the first 170 minutes of the series. But with the aggregate tally tied 2-2 following a furious five-minute stretch during which each team scored, Wondolowski snuck in behind the Red Bulls' defense and rose to meet a cross from left back Bobby Convey.
The header was perfect, and Wondo's league-leading 19th goal of the season propelled the eighth-seeded Earthquakes -- in the playoffs for the first time since 2005 -- to next week's conference final in either Columbus or Denver. San Jose is just the second team since the playoff format was introduced in 2003 to lose the first game at home and recover to win the series.
It's also the third straight season that the eighth seed has survived the first round.
Wondolowski scored the winner (below), but it was Convey who was the star of the show. A player who never really seemed to live up to his teenage promise and who struggled mightily last year in his first season back in MLS after five in England, Convey unleashed that potential on the Red Bulls on Saturday.
He started the game in midfield and gave the Earthquakes (14-11-7) the lead (and tied the series on aggregate) in just the 6th minute. A cross from Ryan Johnson on the right was misplayed by the Red Bulls defense, and the ball fell to Convey about 14 yards out.
Convey had scored just 10 goals in his MLS career and was never known as a player with composure in the penalty area. But this time, as the crowd of 22,800 was still getting warmed up, he smashed his left-footed just under the crossbar.
"When you score early, it lifts the team," Convey told ESPN.
Did it ever. The Red Bulls (16-10-6) appeared disjointed, almost languid, and veterans Juan Pablo Ángel and Rafa Márquez struggled. Instead, their best hope was a 17-year-old making just his second start. Colombian-born Juan Agudelo, a product of the club's youth academy, was starting in place of the injured Thierry Henry and grew more dangerous as the night wore on.
He hit the right post in the 39th minute, and as the Earthquakes looked to hold their lead, they relied heavily on goalkeeper Jon Busch to handle New York's crosses and high balls into the penalty area.
The Red Bulls had the momentum after halftime, and Convey's withdrawal from the attack seemed to hurt San Jose. Meanwhile, Wondolowski was invisible on the right. Busch saved San Jose again on the hour mark, getting his foot to a point-blank shot from Mehdi Ballouchy.
The tide was turning toward the home team. Agudelo came close in the 73rd, and San Jose looked like it was trying to hold out for overtime.
Then Convey struck again, with a goal that any seasoned striker would be proud of (below). Arturo Alvarez started the play, sidestepping New York midfielder Joel Lindpere and feeding Convey on the corner of the penalty area. Convey turned and blew past MLS rookie of the year candidate Tim Ream before blasting a shot past goalie Bouna Condoul.
Convey scored one goal in the regular season.
But the story wasn't over. Ángel, in what looked like his last game for the Red Bulls (which it turned out to be), leveled the aggregate score with a header just two minutes later. The play was created by Agudelo, who beat Jason Hernandez on the left and hit a perfect, looping cross.
Agudelo has represented the U.S. at the under-17 and under-20 levels and was the one player the Red Bulls can feel good about after Thursday's stunning reversal.
Overtime loomed for all of three minutes, then Convey set up Wondolowski for the winner.
"All I had to do was just put a little touch on it," Wondo said of Convey's perfect pass.
In the 81st minute, Thierry Henry entered the game. He'd missed the previous three with an injured right knee and had a chance to level the aggregate score in the 84th, but his lunging header went over.
San Jose survived the frantic closing minutes and moved onto the MLS Cup semis for the first time since winning it all in 2003.
It's an incredible story, and adds some romance to the postseason. But it robs MLS of something the league still sorely needs -- a winner in New York.
With the hiring of Hans Backe, the discovery of players like Ream and Lindpere and the high-profile signings of Henry and Márquez, it seemed like the Red Bulls had turned a corner this season.
The club, its glittering new stadium and its lofty payroll (Henry and Márquez are making $11 million per year combined) were the talk of the league, and there can be little doubt that a Red Bulls trip to the MLS Cup Final in Toronto would be far more compelling for a national audience than an appearance by either San Jose, Colorado or Columbus.
Perhaps New York, with their 1-0 advantage and star-studded roster, looked past San Jose on Thursday night. Wondolowski and Convey, both of whom know well the feeling of being overlooked, made them pay the heaviest of prices.
New York playoff failure is alive and well. It just costs more.