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Friday, August 17, 2012

Major League Soccer: San Jose Earthquakes are masters of the miracle finish - San Jose Mercury News

SAN JOSE -- To say that the Earthquakes are delivering soccer's version of the walk-off home run with amazing frequency probably sells them short. It's more like they're connecting on Hail Mary passes every game.

Eight times this season the Quakes have scored in the 90th minute or later. They've done it their last two games -- with the same player, no less, Steven Lenhart. With 10 games still to play, San Jose has won or tied six games in stoppage time, a league record. Even Frank Yallop, the longtime coach who has witnessed these feats firsthand, calls it an "unbelievable" run.

"It's a pretty good message to the fans: Don't leave early," said Eric Wynalda, the former San Jose star who now serves as a commentator for Fox Soccer. "It's not over till it's officially over with this team. It's kind of like watching an NBA playoff basketball game. You don't need to watch the whole damn thing. Just watch the last couple of seconds with these guys."

Is it magic? Not entirely.

When asked to explain the phenomenon, most analysts begin with Lenhart and Alan Gordon, the physical forwards who play like beasts in the penalty box.

"Everyone in the league, if you gave them a choice of the top five guys they hate to play against, Steven Lenhart. Alan Gordon and Chris Wondolowski are probably in that group, all three of them," said NBC soccer analyst Kyle Martino, a former teammate of Gordon's with the Los Angeles Galaxy.

"The end

of the game is when defenders are tired, they're not thinking clearly and not moving as quickly. To be able to bring Alan or Steven off the bench, two guys that really make a living on being opportunistic goal scorers...."

The league-leading Quakes (14-5-5) play Saturday at Montreal and, clearly, the word is out.

"We know that we've got to play for 95, 100 minutes," Montreal defender Jeb Brovsky said.

Yallop has no small hand in these regular miracles, switching the formation in the late stages to put opposing defenses under siege. He moves midfielder Simon Dawkins up to the attack and drops Wondolowski back to the midfield. Then the team starts lobbing crosses in to the big boys, Lenhart and Gordon.

"We have some really good players," Yallop said. "It's nice to work with guys that are versatile. ... I think the guys adapt well."

Gordon, who is out this week as he completes a two-week suspension, has nine goals overall, including three game-winners and two game-tying goals.Wondolowski leads the team with eight game-winning goals,

Yallop credits the team's fitness coach Greg Tella with having the players in great shape --a key factor in stoppage time. He also credits the Quakes fans.

"That's a huge part of it," Yallop said, and he cited last week's finish against Seattle. "We get scored on and there weren't too many moans and groans in the crowd. It was almost like, 'We've got two minutes left, let's go and get a goal.'"

Leading 1-0 against Seattle, the Quakes surrendered a goal in the 92nd minute. They responded to this unsual turnabout by scoring one of their own a minute later, Lenhart heading in the winner.

Two weeks earlier, Lenhart had electrified the crowd at Buck Shaw with a goal in the 98th minute for a 1-1 draw against Chicago. Then he added two late goals as a substitute in a 2-2 tie in a friendly against England's Swansea City. That's four goals by Lenhart, all in stirring fashion, in three consecutive games.

"We call him 'Braveheart,'" Yallop said. "He's a tough kid."

Team radio announcer Chris Dangerfield describes Lenhart as a cross between former Quakes great Paul Child, a physcial presence in the box, and Krazy George, the club's former cheerleader with wild blond hair. Dangerfield also senses a kind of magic has developed around this team.

The Quakes don't merely have the best record in the league. They appear to be the best team.

"There's a great synergy within the group, and they definitely seem to like each other and work hard for each other," Dangerfield said. "It shows on the field because they never really feel that they're out of the game."

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