It had been almost a year since Bryan Meredith had tended the goal in a game that actually mattered for the San Jose Earthquakes.
Outside of some preseason action, Meredith often played second fiddle to David Bingham and Jon Busch. But on Tuesday night, against a USL Sacramento Republic FC squad (MLS’s version of a AAA team), Meredith came up big when it mattered most and led the Earthquakes to a narrow 3-2 overtime victory over their Northern California foe.
“I felt a bit rusty going into the first half,” the goalkeeper said. “I think we settled down nicely. They’re a good team — well-coached and a lot of good players. I think we were on our heels for the first couple of minutes.”
On their heels, indeed. Rodrigo Lopez, Sacramento’s leading scorer, tallied his ninth goal of the season on a penalty kick given at the six-minute mark.
Replays show Shaun Francis tugging on the Sacramento midfielder just as the attacker entered the 18-yard box.
“It was a foul, 100%,” Coach Dominic Kinnear said. “I think the question was, ‘was it in the penalty area?’ Looking at the replay, it sure was close. So I’m not going to complain. And I didn’t complain. I thought the linesman was really certain, because he ran (to his penalty kick position) right away.And like I said, the replay that I saw up on the screen, it’s right there. So it’s a judgment call.”
After the goal, San Jose seemed to wake up. Although they mounted a solid attack for the remainder of the half, the Earthquakes failed to put one past Sacramento goalkeeper Patrick McLain.
To complicate matters, both center backs Paulo Renato and Ty Harden suffered injuries that would prevent them from finishing the game.
Said Coach Kinnear, “Didn’t expect that to happen. I was hoping to maybe, the guys that hadn’t played in a while, guys like Ty (Harden) and Paulo (Renato), to play the whole game. But we know J.J. (Koval) can play center back. He’s done it before. He did it in Seattle, so you know he can play confidently back there. Looking at our bench, it was either him or Jordan, and I thought it was probably better to get Tommy (Thompson) on the field than to put Jordan and have JJ at right back. So it worked out pretty good for us.”
The move to move Koval to the back end and bring in Thompson did pay dividends, but not initially. Emrah Klimenta scored his second goal of the season in the 54th minute, and the Earthquakes’ hope of advancing in the domestic cup, as well as Meredith’s wish to see more action this season, began to dwindle.
“I said, ‘Look, the Open Cup is yours,” Coach K explained. “‘The farther we go on, the more you’re going to get to play.’ So I’m glad we get another game, for him, to get to play. I thought he played real good for us tonight — pulled off some really good saves. Capped it off with a couple of saves in the penalty kick round. Good for him; he’s been training hard and I’m real happy for him.”
Like the first half, however, the Earthquakes responded to the goal with an onslaught of balls in the box.
After 20 minutes of quality chances, it seemed as thought Sacramento FC was going to pull out the victory. That was until the 74th minute when Chris Wondolowski was able to bury a sloppy rebound into the back of the net.
The goal ignited the Earthquakes even more as, four minutes later, Marvell Wynne burst down the right flank crossing a ball just as it was about to go over the end line to a cutting Wondolowski who put it in the corner with a nice redirect from his head. It was a heroic play from Wynne and an excellent finish from the Danville native.
The game would go into overtime where each team exchanged chances, but never capitalized on the opportunities.
So off to penalty kicks they went, momentum all but gone and a tired cast of 22 soccer players.
Both teams made their first two shots, with Bernardez’s rocket into the back of the net being the highlight of the four.
Khari Stephenson’s shot was blocked, as was Sacramento defender Mickey Daly’s.
Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi’s shot was also blocked, but Meredith was unable to parry Gilberto’s PK.
That put the game on Tommy Thompson’s foot.
“I saw that the goalie was leaving pretty early. So once he went one way, I went the other.”
The 19-year-old nailed his shot and allowed Meredith to turn away Klimenta’s second chance at scoring the game-winning goal.
The shootout went eight rounds in total with James Kiffee, a Sacramento defender, shooting the ball over the goal to give San Jose a 3-2 victory.
After the game, Thompson, a Sacramento native, spoke about what it was like to play such a crucial role in the victory over his hometown squad.
“When I saw we were playing Sac Republic, of course I’m going to want to play against my hometown team. It’s a fun game for us, playing in the Open Cup.”
Likewise, Bryan Meredith seemed to shake off the rust that he spoke of earlier in the match to deliver a quality performance.
“I try not to take it too seriously. It’s hard to explain how I feel during it. But once you make a save, you get into the groove and settle yourself down and feel a lot more comfortable.”
The boxscore reads that Sacramento Republic FC had two shots total, both being on goal. Meaning that Meredith saw 11 quality chances, including nine penalty kicks. To turn nearly a quarter of those away, is truly remarkable.
“He was amazing,” said forward Mark Sherrod. “I think he and Wondo, for sure, were the heroes of the game today. You save one PK in a shootout and you’re a hero; you save two, they’re building statues of you.”
Asked if he had a strategy for penalty kicks, Meredith was coy in his reply.
“There is. I’ve never said anything about what my strategy is, and I’m not going to start now.”