If a modest two-game unbeaten streak had San Jose fans harboring even a smidgen of hope their team could get near the fringe of the playoff race, Saturday night at Candlestick Park snuffed those beliefs.
Tied 0-0 with defending champion Columbus for more than an hour, the Quakes collapsed and surrendered three quick goals to lose, 3-0, and drop even further into the Western Conference basement, since earlier in the week seventh-place FC Dallas managed to beat leader Houston, 1-0.
San Jose (4-11-5, 17 points) is six points behind Dallas and 10 points behind Toronto FC and Chivas USA, which are tied in points for the eighth and final playoff spot. The Quakes have conceded more goals (38) than any MLS team, including the pathetic Red Bulls (2-15-4), and like New York have yet to win on the road this season.
Following the MLS match, Spanish and European champion Barcelona played a spirited 1-1 tie with Guadalajara of Mexico, which is nearly three years removed from its last title, the 2006 Apertura championship. Guadalajara had lost its first two league matches of the 2009 Apertura by combined scores of 7-4, yet took a 1-0 lead on a Ramon Morales header early in the second half and nearly won the game late when Mexican-American Jesus Padilla's shot from a tight angle came back off the goalpost.
While fans couldn't have expected this version of the Quakes -- the second year of a rebirth following the original MLS edition that left Northern California for Houston after the 2005 season -- to be anything like the league champs of 2001 and 2003, the team may not equal the eight wins of last year's expansion campaign, much less vie for a playoff spot.
Poor personnel decisions have plagued the Quakes, which are again in the situation they were last year: desperately scrambling to recover from a bad start, which supposedly had been addressed during the offseason. Aside from the acquisitions of outside backs Chris Leitch and Mike Zaher, most of the offseason moves backfired, which triggered another wave of changes in the past two months.
Striker Cornell Glen has scored three goals in eight games to address a lack of scoring punch after the team traded strikers Pablo Campos and Cam Weaver, who had been acquired in the offseason to beef up the league's worst attack.
San Jose signed Nick Garcia to a new contract worth $190,000 (up from $142,000 in 2008), then stripped him of the captaincy early in the season, and last month shipped him off to Toronto.
Bobby Convey, supposedly signed to guide the attack from a central midfield position, has played his best games - and very few of those -- at left back. Forward Davide Somma was upgraded from a developmental contract to the full roster, only to be waived a few months later after playing just four minutes.
Injuries haven't bounced the Quakes way this season. Defender Jason Hernandez missed the first one-third of the season, as did rampaging winger Darren Huckerby, a vital cog of last year's team who just hasn't regained his edge. He might have scored in the third minute against Columbus when Ryan Johnson put him through, but keeper Will Hesmer blocked his shot.
Hernandez unwittingly set up the Crew's second goal when he blocked Chris Leitch's attempted clearance and the ball rebounded right to Robbie Rogers, who nailed a shot past keeper Joe Cannon.
The loss of defenders Ryan Cochrane and Aaron Pitchkolan, who played eight matches after being acquired from Dallas, has thinned out the back line. Yet other teams, notably New England and Chivas USA, have been ravaged by injuries yet hover around the .500 level and are in the playoff race.
There have been some solid performances for the Quakes, both collectively and individually, but precious little consistency from game to game. A few golazos netted by mercurial midfielder Arturo Alvarez, for example, hasn't been accompanied by solid, effective play on the flank, and while Shea Salinas has progressed in his second pro season, he's yet to attain the level necessary to earn regular starts.
The loss to Columbus followed a comeback 2-2 tie against D.C. United and a 4-0 thrashing of Seattle, which fell behind to an own goal in the second minute and lost former Quake James Riley to a red card a half-hour later.
A midseason revamp netted midfielders Ramon Sanchez and Andre Luiz Moreira, and neither could do much to slow down the Crew once substitutes Alejandro Moreno and Emmanuel Ekpo got into the flow and Columbus broke the game open with two goals in four minutes.
There's not much margin for error in MLS, as the Quakes have convincingly proved by losing ground, rather than gaining, in their second season.