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San Jose, Calif. • All the way to the end, Real Salt Lake fought, down two men for the first time in its 224-game Major League Soccer history yet straining with every desperate fiber to hold on against the San Jose Earthquakes and escape Buck Shaw Stadium with a point for the draw.
And then …
"Sometimes, it's cruel," defender Chris Wingert said.
That's putting it mildly.
San Jose's Simon Dawkins scored on a header in the 92nd minute, and league-leading scorer Chris Wondolowski added another just moments later to lift the Earthquakes to a 3-1 victory Saturday that wrested first place in the MLS Western Conference away from RSL and spoiled the return of midfielder Javier Morales from injury.
"All that effort," Wingert said, shaking his head. "And no points."
It was hard for RSL to feel anything but crushed, having battled so hard to survive the red-card ejections of both forward Fabian Espindola and defender Jamison Olave, only to have the result yanked away at the bitter end.
The Earthquakes had not beaten RSL in five games dating back nearly three years, yet used their victory to vault into first place with 16 points one ahead of RSL.
"It's an inexperienced referee, from my point of view," coach Jason Kreis said. "I don't know if he's ever refereed one of our matches before. I think it's difficult circumstances for him, and he struggled."
Referee Elias Bazakos ejected Espindola in the 29th minute for a dangerous two-footed slide into San Jose's Sam Cronin, and sent off Olave more controversially for a foul against San Jose's Steven Lenhart as Lenhart raced in on goalkeeper Nick Rimando in the 69th minute.
"That second red card was questionable," Rimando said.
Alas, it left RSL straining to hold off wave after wave of attacks from the Earthquakes during the final stages, hoping that midfielder Kyle Beckerman's stunning equalizer would hold up.
Beckerman scored in the 53rd minute to offset a header by San Jose's Khari Stephenson that glanced off Rimando's glove in first-half stoppage time.
"It was a really frustrating game," Beckerman said. "But we kept at it, kept at it, and felt that even down a man, we would get a chance to get back in it. Then when we lost the next guy ..."
It was the second straight road loss for RSL, which started another three-games-in-eight-nights stretch that now must proceed without Espindola and Olave at FC Dallas on Wednesday.
"We have to take the positives out of this," Kreis said. "We fought back in an extremely difficult circumstance a man down, goal down, come even, go two men down. Fight, fight, fight. Come really, really close. So let's try to look at the positives and say, 'If we put that kind of effort in from minute one and keep all our players on the field, we have good chance to win."