By Patrick Shea

The San Jose Earthquakes won this year’s Las Vegas Pro Soccer Challenge Cup, beating the Colorado Rapids 2-0 at Cashman Field on Sunday night in what is becoming a preseason tradition for the two clubs. Chris Wondolowski added an extra “W” to the franchise history when he survived a murky melee in the box to score the first goal of the game in the 43rd minute. JJ Koval hit a volley off a corner kick in the 74th minute to secure the victory.

The Earthquakes took home the Findlay Automotive Group trophy with the victory, a preseason prize. According to Rapids head coach Pablo Mastroeni and former Earthquakes midfielder Sam Cronin, the Rapids take-away is preseason momentum for the group.

“It was a good exercise, for the most part,” Mastroeni said.

Including players, coaches, and support staff, the Rapids are traveling around the southwest with 45 people. When they beat UNLV on Friday, 22 Rapids players did not play because some were slated to start on Sunday. At halftime against the Earthquakes, Mastroeni had goalkeeper Clint Irwin cool down so Quentin Westberg could test the shutout streak he started on Friday. The 10 field players remained the same for the start of the second half: Wes Knight (Charlotte Independence), Shane O’Neill, Jared Watts, Michael Harrington, Sam Cronin, Lucas Pittinari, Vicente Sanchez, Marcelo Sarvas, Dillon Serna, and Dominique Badji.

“Initially we wanted to get 45 minutes out of the guys, not having played a game at this point. San Jose has played four or five, I think, so we knew they’d be a bit more match fit than us,” Mastroeni explained. “But when we made the change at 60, the guys were pretty disappointed because they were on top of the game, and they finally caught their second wind. They’re in good physical form, and there were a lot of nice spots of good football on both sides of the ball.”

According to Cronin, “It was good. Obviously you can’t replicate games in training. We’ll be looking for more games in Tucson and continue our understanding. We’re going through a good progression here, and we’ll be peaking in March. We have a great blend of young talented players and older guys and experienced international players too. We’ll make a charge for the post-season this season.”

The goals, the gist

Cronin lined up with Pittinari in the center of midfield with Sarvas attacking in front of them. The trio maintained a midfield edge with four defenders behind them, Sanchez and Serna on the flanks, and Badji battling for every ball as a lone striker.

At 115 by 72, the field provided enough space for Badji to run wide and deep. On the other end of the field, Irwin faced shots and dangerous crosses. The two combined for the first good chance for the Rapids in the 20th minute. Irwin caught a long Earthquakes throw-in and quickly sent a low punt forward. The Senegalese striker caught up to it in the box and fired a shot first-time right over the crossbar.

During a five-minute stretch, Badji set up two shots for Serna. In the same series of plays, right back Knight sent a cross to the far post, and Serna won the header but couldn’t put it on frame. A corner kick popped out to Serna in the 26th minute, and he fired a volley high but not far off target.

On the Earthquakes’ left wing, Shea Salinas sent a series of crosses into the box, one forcing Irwin to dive like a save to deflect the ball.

In the 36th minute, Sarvas turned with the ball in midfield and found Sanchez. The Uruguayan attacker dribbled into the box and forced a save from David Bingham.

Badji and Harrington combined for a one-two on the wing, but Badji had a tight angle for the shot.

Cronin received his promised yellow card in the 38th minute after a tough midfield tackle.

The Earthquake’s scored in the 43rd minute. Salinas sent another cross to the top of the box. Irwin rose to clear it but couldn’t make good contact, perhaps because of the contact beneath him. He fell with Wondolowski and Watts. Wondo tried to heel the ball into the net. Watts blocked it, but Wondolowski followed up to put it away.

In the second half, the Rapids picked up momentum. Earthquakes defender Ty Harden went into the book for holding Sanchez on a breakaway.

In the 53rd minute, O’Neill won a crunching tackle and carried the ball forward, passing to Badji in the crowded box.

A little after the hour mark, Mastroeni replaced all 10 field players: Caleb Calvert alone up top, Oscar Montoya on the right flank, Carlos Alvarez on the left, and Gabriel Torres attacking in front of Ben Newman and Andrew Ribeiro. The back four included Joe Greenspan, Axel Sjoberg, Marc Burch, and trialist Francisco Flores.

In the 67th minute, Montoya received the ball on the right wing and took it at two defenders before firing a shot high wide to the left.

In the 74th minute, Leandro Barrera sent a corner to the top of the box. The ball fell between defenders, and JJ Koval blasted it past Westberg.

Down 2-0, Torres led the Rapids attack. He collected the ball outside the box, but his shot deflected for a corner kick. Alvarez sent the ball into the box, and Greenspan headed it wide right. Minutes later, Torres found Calvert, but his shot was wide left.

Mastroeni said he saw positives in the loss.

“We’ve been working on positioning for the last couple weeks with the understanding that good defensive shape wins championships,” Mastroeni said. “So if that’s a foundation we can build on, we’ll be in good shape. Now it’s about putting the ball in the back of the goal. But that’s the last part of preseason that comes with more accelerated, dynamic movements. We created good opportunities tonight and just didn’t capitalize. But that wasn’t the focus. The focus was on being able to compete and making sure we could get the physical component out of the game.”

The Rapids are now in an MLS regular-season rhythm with games on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The next match will be streamed live on ColoradoRapids.com. Log on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. to watch the group face Sporting Kansas City.

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