By Arthur Wilkie
SANTA CLARA, Calif. – In a game that will be remembered more for the first-team debuts of young Homegrown talents Jacob Akanyrige, Gilbert Fuentes, and JT Marcinkowski than the play on the field, the San Jose Earthquakes held their own against visitors Manchester United as they battled to a scoreless draw on Sunday afternoon at Levi’s Stadium.
As was expected, Manchester United controlled the run of play throughout the first half. The Earthquakes were under pressure early and often, beginning with Eric Bailly’s powerful header that careened off the crossbar from Alexis Sanchez’s free kick just yards to the left of the box, a result of Guram Kashia’s first foul in a San Jose uniform.
Luke Shaw saw another chance that bounced into his path, attempting an audacious volley that landed atop Marcinkowski’s net rather than in it.
Outside of a Joel Qwiberg shot from long distance, a pair of free kicks, and sharp crosses from the Albanian afterthought Jamir Hyka and defensive stalwart Nick Lima, with their teammates providing no end product to punish the opposition, there was little to speak of for the home side in the first half.
Still, the Quakes were happy to go into the break level on the scoreline. Marcinkowski looked comfortable in his distribution and command, if not helped by the fact he was mainly untested by the visitors. The backline that has come across as a jittery and worrisome unit throughout the season were less jittery and worrisome than usual.
Both teams heavily refreshed their lineups after the half, with Vako and Tommy Thompson proving to be the most effective of head coach Mikael Stahre’s substitutions for the Earthquakes.
The duo were responsible for San Jose’s clearest chances in the second half, with a low cross from Thompson making its way to a wide-open Vako through a Chris Wondolowski dummy, ultimately to be cleared off the line by a last-ditch sliding effort from Timothy Fosu-Mensah in the 56th minute.
One minute later, a Vako free kick connected with Yeferson Quintana’s head at the far post, forcing a save out of ex-Stoke City man Lee Grant.
Thompson continued to make his mark on the game with a shot a short few yards away from the top of the box, forcing another save and earning a corner for San Jose.
The Red Devils nearly went ahead in the 78th minute when 16-year-old Mason Greenwood whipped in a dangerous cross to connect with Scott McTominay’s run into the Quakes box, but backup Matt Bersano was there to make the save.
Quintana matched Bailly’s early encounter with the woodwork with one of his own in the 81st minute, his header from Shea Salinas’ corner smacking against the crossbar.
Stahre would hand short debuts to 16-year-old Homegrown players Gilbert Fuentes and Jacob Akanyrige in the 86th and 90th minutes, a sign of the impending future to excite fans in an otherwise lackluster season.
The Earthquakes would have the last chance of the game on a counter attack, with Fuentes setting up Vako for one last crack to get the better of Grant only to send his shot over the United crossbar just seconds shy of the 90 minute mark.
After the game, both managers provided differing outlooks. On one hand, a familiarly bitter Jose Mourinho praised an “enthusiastic” Earthquakes squad but hinting that the game meant much more to San Jose than it did for his United.
On the other, an under-pressure Stahre saying that “of course we have to be happy with a clean sheet against Manchester United,” highlighting the fact that it was their first of the season.
United youngsters JT Garner and Tahith Chong failed to impress and, along with wantaway Anthony Martial’s lack of finishing, hurt United’s chemistry in attack. Their biggest threat in the game was Sanchez, with the Chilean playmaker making smart runs, finding space in between the lines, and putting his teammates through into favorable positions in his hour on the pitch.
The introduction of Juan Mata to the game after the half kept the Red Devils looking dangerous in the final third, and both Andreas Pereira and Ander Herrera had strong link-up play with both Sanchez and Mata throughout the game.
Though Vako and Thompson earned the praise on the attacking side, Quintana was a central figure on the backline in the second half, with the Uruguayan blocking a Juan Mata ground cross with a sliding tackle in the Quakes box and coming up with a diving clearance late in the game to help the Earthquakes achieve the unlikely clean sheet.
Up next for the Earthquakes is a renewal of their rivalry with Seattle Sounders on Wednesday night at Avaya Stadium. For the last place team in MLS with only 12 points through 19 games played, it’s yet another must-win game against a resurgent Seattle squad unbeaten in their last four games and five of their last six.