By Ridge Mahoney
"They picked a bad night to have a bad game."
So spoke a member of the Quakes’ support staff, who for the first time since last August watched them lose a game at Buck Shaw Stadium. Two goals by Robbie Keane and one by Mike Magee Wednesday night sent them out of the playoffs with a 3-1 defeat on the night and 3-2 aggregate deficit.
“I felt that everything that could go bad for us went bad for us this game,” said midfielder Rafael Baca, who was substituted early in the second half with the Quakes down, 3-0. “In these games you cannot take your foot off the pedal, and I feel like that cost us today.
“They had to come to our house and press us, because obviously they had to win. It’s unbelievable to have this happen. In other games, we had time to recover, but not in the playoffs. It’s one game, two games, and you’re out.”
The 2011 MLS Cup champion and Supporters’ Shield winner thus eliminated the bitter rival trying to duplicate its feat. San Jose, which scored 22 goals after the 75th minute during a run of spectacular comeback finishes, topped all teams with 66 points (19-6-9 record) and 72 goals, but over the two legs of the Western Conference semifinals mustered only a free kick that squirmed under the goalkeeper in the first leg and a late goal by substitute Alan Gordon (formerly of the Galaxy) that narrowed the aggregate to its final margin.
Postgame analysis centered on the early departure of Honduran centerback Victor Bernardez, who hobbled off with an injury in the 12th minute, and the misfires of Golden Boot winner Chris Wondolowski, who skied a close-range shot over the crossbar early in the match and couldn’t convert two other good opportunities.
“I thought I had to lift it a little bit because Josh [Saunders] was there, but I just sent it way over,” Wondolowski said of his 26th-minute attempt with the Galaxy keeper on the ground. “Pretty bad.”
By then, San Jose trailed, 1-0, to a sharp Keane strike that angled into the net off the inside of the goalpost. Ike Opara had replaced Bernardez, who had scored against the Galaxy in the first leg and also in a wild 4-3 regular-season win. With Opara in place of the rugged Honduran international, the Quakes were unable to contain Keane, Magee, and Landon Donovan, who assisted on Keane’s goals that turned the aggregate in favor of the Galaxy.
“It was pretty tough losing him early in the match,” said San Jose coach Frank Yallop of Bernardez, a serious candidate for Newcomer of the Year and Defender of the Year honors. “I thought, obviously, Galaxy played pretty well tonight, offensively. But when you lose your best defender, it’s pretty tough. You lose a little chemistry.
“Ike’s not played in a while, so it’s not easy. I’m not blaming Ike at all, but when you lose someone of that stature it doesn’t help.”
Gordon, who had compiled a career-high 13 goals during the regular season, started the game on the bench because of a sprained ankle. His absence, the loss of Bernardez, and the pressure of a Galaxy team desperate to win disrupted the Quakes, which didn’t lack for opportunities but couldn’t hold the ball and dissipate their opponents’ momentum.
After his first goal in the 21st minute, Keane struck again the 34th and Magee added a third five minutes later. The Galaxy had squandered three first-half chances in a 2-2 tie at Buck Shaw 2 ½ weeks ago, but this is the playoffs.
San Jose’s crosses were repelled by centerbacks Omar Gonzalez and Tommy Meyer or cleared before Quakes could latch onto second balls, and so the home team didn’t gain a foothold until well into the second half. Justin Morrow volleyed a half-clearance back into the goalmouth and Gordon’s nick was just enough to steer it past Saunders. About eight minutes of regulation plus stoppage-time remained, but this time the comeback fell short.
“We didn’t play particularly well, for whatever reason,” said Yallop. “For us, we had plenty of chances, but we didn’t play very well. Wondo would like [one] back at 1-0, which makes a difference. Ike at the end had a great chance. We had our chances tonight to score goals, but on general football I don’t think we played well until the last 20, 25 minutes.
“I’m surprised we didn’t play our game. For whatever reason – what the Galaxy did to us, or the way we came out and coached it – I thought we had plenty of effort, just didn’t play well.”
Galaxy coach Bruce Arena, who cited his team’s improved play in the second half of the season as perhaps an underpublicized factor, praised San Jose’s regular season.
“They are really the champions in the league,” he said. “When you go through the entire season, I’m not a great believer in the way they have the Supporters’ Shield, but they earned it.
“So congratulations to them, but I think we have a really good team and we have a chance to prove it in the next series again.”
The Galaxy, which can host MLS Cup only if it and 2011 co-finalist Houston advance, moves on to play the winner of the Seattle-Real Salt Lake series. As for the Quakes, as Baca said, “We learn from this and get back to work.”