I've never been a big believer that axiom that a two-goal lead is the most dangerous lead in soccer, but the San Jose Earthquakes are making believers of me.
Actually, any lead is dangerous against the Quakes, but they are especially fond of two-goal deficits against the Galaxy, as they proved again Saturday by rallying from 3-1 down to win, 4-3, in the 50th renewal of their right old rivalry. It was a match to rank amongst the most spectacular in league history, though still standing No. 1 -- perhaps forever -- will be the 2003 playoff game that Quakes won, 5-2, in sudden-death overtime after they lost the first leg, 2-0, at Home Depot Center and fell behind in the second leg by the same score.
(Often forgotten is that the Quakes did the same thing to Kansas City in the conference final, roaring back to win, 3-2, again in overtime, after they trailed, 1-0, and 2-1. But those were only one-goal deficits. Pffff.)
So this is merely the latest incarnation of the Cardiac Quakes, not some new breed of gritty, never-say-die warriors. But even so, they and the Galaxy generated enough slapstick comedy and spectacular play to fill out two games, or maybe three. A post-game fireworks show in the skies above Stanford Stadium, which had been packed by a sellout crowd of 50,381, was merely a continuation of what had transpired on the field.
An own goal by Quakes defender Jason Hernandez was canceled out by a superb volley off a corner kick by his centerback partner, Victor Bernandez, who darted to the near post and fired a shot into the opposite corner that any forward would envy. Chris Wondolowski, to no one’s surprise, hit the winning goal with a classy re-direction of another corner kick to increase his league-leading total to 14 goals, yet holding mid Sam Cronin – who at kickoff had scored one goal in 90 MLS games – ghosted through midfield to score the 3-3 equalizer and nearly scored again with a close-range volley that cleared the crossbar.
At the other end, keeper Jon Busch came out of a crunching collision with Galaxy defender David Junior Lopes apparently able to continue, but soon his right eye would swell up sufficiently to force him out of the match at halftime. By then, the Galaxy had scored three goals, the first a superb yet somehow typical David Beckham free kick, which swooped into the top near corner before Busch could get off his feet. Hernandez’s own goal and a Landon Donovan finish provided a 3-1 lead the Galaxy squandered by reverting to the shabby defending that had marked its miserable start to the season.
Galaxy coach Bruce Arena, exasperated by his team’s dismal defending after it seemed sorted out during a three-game winning streak, inevitably ripped referee Hilario Grajeda. Arena mentioned two handballs that weren’t called; in one of the disputed incidents, a well-struck ball flew between Bernardez’s upraised arms and hit him in the face. There may have been intent, but there wasn’t contact. The other suspected foul never showed up on TV replays though it prompted vehement claims by the Galaxy players.
Quakes coach Frank Yallop, who was also in charge when San Jose stunned Los Angeles in the 2003 playoffs, said one of the keys to this comeback was Bernardez’s great finish just before halftime that narrowed the gap to 3-2. His team seized that momentum to equalize early in the second half through Cronin, then strike again in the 61st minute on Wondolowski’s quick reaction to a Marvin Chavez corner kick that had been glanced into this path by Ramiro Corrales.
In this element, too, there is a history lesson. When the Galaxy eliminated top-seeded San Jose in the 2005 playoffs, it did so 4-2 on aggregate over the two games. San Jose had trailed 2-1 late in the first game at HDC but in the 87th minute conceded a goal to Donovan to lose, 3-1, and at home could only manage a 1-1 tie. To a man, the players said conceding that third goal at HDC flattened them psychologically if not numerically.
Backup keeper David Bingham, who took over in goal for the second half as Busch watched with a huge bandage around his forehead, pulled off a few sharp saves to fend off the Galaxy. Beckham tested the goalie with the hard shot off the outside of his right foot, banged a ball at Cronin to draw a yellow card, and yelled a few fans giving him a hard time. A smoke bomb landed near a corner flag to send up clouds of brown. Great stuff.
That two-goal lead in 2005 wasn’t overturned, but on Saturday the Quakes managed to pull it off, and not for the first time this season, either. You’d think the Galaxy had learned its lesson, since in the first meeting this season at HDC, it had taken a 1-0 lead in the third minute and doubled the advantage in the 73rd. Three minutes later Steven Lenhart scored, six minutes after that Khari Stephenson equalized, and in the fourth minute of stoppage time ex-Galaxy striker Alan Gordon stung his former team by nodding a misplayed long ball into the net. Saturday was déjà vu all over again.
In discussing the 2012 Quakes, Yallop agrees that this version is more talented than the surprising 2010 team that got within one game of MLS Cup, losing to eventual champion Colorado. But he also points out it has the same toughness. At 11-3-3, it is atop the Western Conference as well as the overall standings, and is already within two wins of the 13-10-7 team of two years ago.
“These guys have that same grittiness as that team in 2010,” he says. ‘They’re always working, they never give up. They all believe in each other. That’s what I look for, because you can’t win without it.”