SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Two red cards had Real Salt Lake seeing red after a 3-1 loss to the San Jose Earthquakes Saturday night in a Western Conference battle for first place at Buck Shaw Stadium.
After playing two men down over a 21-minute stretch, the RSL defense finally succumbed to goals by Simon Dawkins and Chris Wondolowski, both on diving headers, in stoppage time, which broke a 1-1 draw. San Jose (5-1-1, 16 points) moved past RSL (5-3, 15) in the standings.
Ejections to Fabian Espindola in the 29th minute and Jamison Olave in the 69th made the match seem like a survival mission for coach Jason Kreis' team. Olave was bounced for taking down Steven Lenhart after the Earthquakes' forward had stormed past him toward a 1-on-1 break on goal.
The RSL attack took a major hit when Espindola, who had three goals in the first six matches, was shown a red card after tangling with Sam Cronin sliding for the ball in the middle of the field. Cronin leaped to his feet and put his hands on Espindola's back, and the RSL player appeared to shove him away.
Afterward, Kreis praised his team but wasn't thrilled with referee Elias Bazakos' decisions during a big match in which the teams combined for six yellow cards.
"I think it's an inexperienced referee from my point of view," Kreis said. "I don't know if he's ever refereed one of our matches before. I think it's a difficult circumstance for him and he struggled.
"I think we've taken the position in our league this year that we're trying to get some new, talented referees. In order to do that, you have to give guys like that an opportunity and hopefully correct their mistakes."
The red cards will likely come with one-game suspensions, thus RSL will have to do some roster shuffling when it travels to FC Dallas on Wednesday. Unfazed, Kreis said the team is in a "good place now" with a wealth of manpower and should be able to absorb the losses smoothly.
RSL veteran goalkeeper Nick Rimando made five saves, and his team had to start building to attacks from its own penalty box in the final minutes because of its manpower shortage.
Kreis said he was "extremely proud" of his defense, adding that "we were very close to pulling off a heroic result."
Despite playing 10 against 11 to start the second half, RSL carved up the Earthquakes' defense during a brief flurry and tied the match 1-1 in the 53rd minute. Captain Kyle Beckerman received a Jonny Steele pass from the left, cut past a defender in the box and slotted a ball past goalkeeper Jon Busch into the near corner for his second goal of the season.
Seconds before the first-half ended, the Earthquakes found the finishing touch in stoppage time.
Khari Stephenson, who nearly scored twice earlier on free kicks, received a cross from Steven Beitashour from the right and beat Rimando with a leaping header. The keeper got a hand on the ball, but couldn't keep it out of the left corner of the goal. Cronin started the scoring sequence by feeding a pass wide right to Beitashour.
Real was fortunate to be even at that point. The Earthquakes nearly scored twice in the first eight minutes of the second half. A diving save by Rimando on a Stephenson blast from the right denied San Jose a two-goal cushion.
When the first-half whistle was blown, frustrated Real midfielder Will Johnson punted the ball into the grandstands out of frustration. The teams combined for four yellow cards in the first half.
RSL midfielder Javier Morales, who injured his hamstring in a 1-0 win over Montreal in April, returned to the starting lineup. He'd returned to full training for at least some of the week. The club hoped to have midfielder Ned Grabavoy (dislocated rib) back as well, but he did not make the trip after also participating in training.
RSL is amid a grinding three-game road trip (Sporting KC, Quakes and FC Dallas). It started the year with two big road wins at Los Angeles and Portland, but fell 1-0 last weekend at unbeaten Kansas City. Thus Saturday's match gave RSL a chance to reclaim its road mojo.
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The Earthquakes entered the week in an altered state, health-wise, with wingers Shea Salinas (broken left collarbone) and Marvin Chavez (suspension) and center back Victor Bernardez (strained left knee ligament) unavailable.
Wondolowski's goal in the 93rd minute of stoppage time was his first against RSL and eighth of the season.
The Quakes were 0-4-2 in their previous six meetings against RSL, including 0-3-2 in the MLS regular season. RSL had won back-to-back road games at Buck Shaw and had shut out San Jose in four straight matches dating back to the 2010 season opener.
In 2011 RSL beat the host Quakes 1-0 in a deluge in the teams' openers, on a Kyle Beckerman goal, and 4-0 on July 23 in Utah.