CARSON -- Chivas USA used two gorgeous goals and its finest defensive performance of the season to score its first victory in more than a month, an impressive 2-0 decision Wednesday night over the San Jose Earthquakes before a sparse gathering at Home Depot Center.
Ben Zemanski came off the bench to score on a bending rocket of a shot from 30 yards in the 64th minute, and Nick LaBrocca's team-best fifth goal in the 84th, from substitute Francisco Mendoza's perfectly weighted pass, sealed the triumph as the Goats (5-7-6) completed a season sweep of the Quakes (5-6-6) and vaulted past them and into sixth place in the Western Conference.
It was a triumph built on defense, with, especially, the backline denying the Quakes even one decent look at the net.
“I thought our defense really answered the challenge and made great decisions tonight,” head coach Robin Fraser gushed afterward. “As a result we were able to really prevent too many dangerous opportunities, and we're really excited about the shutout.”
Goalkeeper Dan Kennedy was required to make only three saves -- just one of them, an 86th-minute header by Yorba Linda's Steven Lenhart, was the least bit troublesome -- and the Goats took command as they found a rhythm and after Zemanski and then Mendoza came onto the field.
The victory, Fraser said, was “a big boost for us in terms of our concentration. We have to recognize when we are concentrating, defensively we're not giving up the types of things that we have been, and as a result, as long as we're in the game, we give ourselves a chance. ...
“I think for us it was important that we go through the exercise of really focusing on not giving up dangerous opportunities. Ad we didn't [give up dangerous opportunities] and kept ourselves firmly in the game, and as we started to play better, we found a goal.”
A quick look at Chivas' victory:
BEST PLAYER: Several candidates, including both goal scorers and central defender Michael Umaña, who was solid from start to finish in helping to minimize the Quakes' opportunities and as a conduit to move the ball through and out of the back.
But our vote goes to central midfielder Simon Elliott, at 37 the oldest man on the field (and the Goats' captain). He indefatigably outbattled San Jose's Brad Ring and Sam Cronin for command in midfield and contributed mightily to Chivas' attack as a point man in possession and in creating opportunities in the final third.
BEST GOAL: The gut reaction is to go with Zemanski's, the latest in a growing body of superb MLS goals this season -- and a real spark for the Goats, who were increasingly dominating play but needed proof that their superiority might be rewarded.
As Pearce said: “Sometimes when you score a goal like Ben scored, it gets the team really fired up. It's taken quite a few games to get a goal like that that can turn a game around for us. Kind of that X factor that I think we've been lacking.”
As sweet as the first goal was, the mechanics of LaBrocca's clincher glow even brighter. It looked simple -- square pass from Michael Lahoud to Mendoza, whose feed into space at the top of San Jose's box sets up a classy finish -- but the perfect execution of three primary elements made all the difference.
The first, and most important, was courtesy of Victor Estupiñan, making just his second start of the season. As Lahoud's pass reached Mendoza, Estupiñan made a run toward the left, pulling two defenders with him and opening the chasm in the middle. Mendoza sent a diagonal ball into the space, and LaBrocca, more or less alone in front, needed just one touch to create the angle he needed.
“It was a great ball by Panchito [Mendoza],” LaBrocca said. “And [Estupiñan] cleared off the space. That's a huge part of it, because if he doesn't make that run, that space doesn't get opened up.”
BIGGEST STRUGGLE: It took the Goats at least a half -- an extremely tedious half with no real chances for either side -- to get their bearings, and another 20 minutes to really start connecting with their passes and possession. Zemanski's goal opened the game for Chivas, which was able to exploit the space left as the Quakes were forced to push forward in search of an equalizer and hold command the rest of the way.
That attacking dynamism doesn't come easily, but Chivas USA's defensive game was so good, they had the means to be patient, to wait for things to open up at the other end.
“At the beginning, it wasn't fantastic,” Fraser said, “but wile we weren't playing great, we still weren't giving up chances, and that's the important thing. ... I think you have to be solid defensively first. When you play well on top of being solid defensively, then you put yourself in an opportunity to win games and win championships.”
The other major struggle was at the box office. The announced attendance was only 9,425, by far the smallest of the season -- and in reality, the gathering was much smaller. It adds fuel to talk around HDC that Chivas is looking to get out, perhaps as soon as next year.
WORTH NOTING: Chivas finally confirmed the release of Ghanaian defender Seth Owusu, who is on trial with Real Salt Lake. Fraser said the decision was made a couple of weeks ago. “It didn't work out,” he said. “I feel like Seth is a talented, young, athletic player, but in terms of tactically what we were looking for, it just wasn't a good match for us.” ... Blair Gavin made his first start since reinjuring his hamstring on March 26. His assessment: “I lost too many balls, I was a step behind things. I got to get my awareness back and find the right angles again, and it was difficult for me at first, but I think once I settled down and kind of took a deep breath, I think I played a little better.” ... Mendoza was making his first appearance in seven games. ... Chivas midfielder Gerson Mayen has committed his international future to El Salvador after playing for the U.S. at the 2009 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Egypt. Mayen (Los Angeles/Manual Arts HS) was born in Southern California to Salvadoran parents.
FINAL JUDGMENT: “For us, win number five has been a long time coming,” Fraser said. “We feel like we've played well enough to have gotten results in the past, but this is part of our learning experience, is that it's not good enough to play well. You have to play well and play effectively and concentrate for 90 minutes, and I think it's a good milestone for us, especially coming off the last number of games where we've scored quite a few goals, but we've also given up quite a few goals.
“The teams that win in this league are teams that don't get involved in 3-2 and 5-4 shootouts week in and week out. I think you have to be a disciplined team defensively, and out of that you find good attacking opportunities, and I felt tonight was a good building step for us, a good building block for us.”
NEXT: Saturday at Sporting Kansas City, 4:30 p.m. (Galavision)
Home Depot Center (Carson)
Chivas USA 2, San Jose Earthquakes 0
C -- Ben Zemanski (Justin Braun) 64
C -- Nick LaBrocca (Francisco Mendoza) 84
Chivas USA: Dan Kennedy; Michael Lahoud, Michael Umaña, Heath Pearce, Zarek Valentin; Blair Gavin (Francisco Mendoza, 74), Nick LaBrocca, Simon Elliott, Jorge Flores (Ben Zemanski, 58); Justin Braun, Victor Estupiñan. Unused subs: Andy Boyens, Chris Cortez, Marcos Mondaini, Zach Thornton, Mariano Trujillo.
San Jose Earthquakes: Jon Busch; Steven Beitashour (Tim Ward, 46+), Chris Leitch, Jason Hernandez, Ramiro Corrales; Joey Gjertsen (Simon Dawkins, 46), Sam Cronin (Omar Jasseh, 77), Brad Ring, Ryan Johnson; Chris Wondolowski, Steven Lenhart.
Yellow card: Lenhart 60.
Referee: Baldomero Toledo. Att.: 9,425.