CANDLESTICK PARK — They didn’t win on Sunday night, but the San Jose Earthquakes did their best to give Candlestick Park a proper send off.
The Earthquakes fell 4-3 in penalty kicks to Spanish visitors Atletico Madrid after 90 minutes of scoreless football, continuing their improved run of form against an opponent both literally and figuratively out of their league.
The Quakes could not overcome penalty misses by Khari Stephenson and Billy Schuler, and Madrid’s Saul knocked home the final spot kick to give Atletico a win in their first exhibition match of 2014.
Sunday’s match will go down as the last sporting event ever played at legendary Candlestick park. The ‘Stick retires after 54 years of hosting professional Bay Area sports, including five Super Bowl-winning 49ers teams and the San Francisco Giants until 1999.
Photos by Trevor Will/SFBay
The historical moment was not lost on Earthquakes’ head coach Mark Watson:
“It meant a lot to us, as does the game next week opening up their new stadium. I think anyone who’s been around the Bay Area knows what a special place this is, there’s so much history and so many championships and great things that have happened here. It was a special night.”
The match marked the second edition of the Copa Euroamericana, an exhibition tournament featuring clubs from CONCACAF, CONMEBOL and UEFA. The Earthquakes did not participate last year, and are the first and only MLS club to do so.
The afternoon got off to a bizarre start, when it was announced an issue with Madrid’s bus would push the scheduled start time of 4 p.m. back an hour.
Coupled with a less than spectacular turnout — an attendance of 15,588 compared to 62,583 for Saturday’s Real Madrid vs. Inter Milan friendly at UC Berkeley — it was shaping up to be a mediocre end to one of the most historic sites in Bay Area sports history.
But when the players eventually did take the field, the MLS hosts treated the crowd to an entertaining performance in which they more than held their own against last year’s La Liga champions and UEFA Champions League finalists.
Atleti played their strongest side available, but manager Diego Simone left a few of his biggest stars at home, including Diego Godin and recent Croatian acquisition Mario Mandzukic.
Coming off their biggest win of the season and playing their third game in nine days, San Jose manager Mark Watson smartly elected to play a mixture of starters and reserves, and substituted the potent strike duo of Chris Wondolowski and Yannick Djalo after the first half.
It looked like the heavily favored Spaniards were destined for an early lead, when in the 40th minute, Atletico was awarded a questionable penalty, following a challenge by Brandon Barklage in the box. Replays showed that the defender never touched Atletico’s Mario Suarez, who fell after whiffing his attempt.
Justice would be served however when Raul Garcia hit the post, and reserve San Jose keeper Bryan Meredith made an incredible save on the ensuing rebound to keep the score level.
Ironically, San Jose was far more potent in the attacking third after Djalo and Wondo exited the match, frequently taking advantage of homegrown player Tommy Thompson’s speed and creativity on the counter attack, and nearly scored on a one-on-one situation with opposing keeper Miguel Moya.
Thompson was the man of the match in his first appearance for San Jose since June 7 and his second overall. In a midfield that has been begging for a creative force all season, Thompson made a serious case for himself to be considered for the starting XI going forward, regardless of whether or not San Jose makes a move in the transfer window.
Thompson began the season on the bench recovering from right knee surgery and has spent most of his time since then on loan for affiliate Sacramento Republic FC. Watson heaped praise on the teenager’s performance:
“That’s his first time really playing for us all year and I thought he did really well. He’s a young kid and he showed he has a lot of talent…You know he’s playing against very good players, strong players, top professionals and he held his own.”
Watson did not rule out the possibility of seeing Thompson in a larger role for the Earthquakes going forward.
San Jose will go from hosting the last event at the 49ers old stadium to the first event at their new stadium, when they face Western Conference leaders Seattle Sounders at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara at 7 PM next Saturday.
The matchup will be a good indicator of whether San Jose’s last few game are indicative of a turn around in form or simply a blip on the radar. Watson is confident the former is the case:
“I think this team is building confidence. I think there has been some improvement. I think the players are aware of that. It’s starting to click a little bit.”