Defensive breakdowns, not bad luck, doomed the Earthquakes

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

Once Victor Bernardez was forced to leave the game, the LA Galaxy were able to exploit the holes in the Earthquakes defense.

The Goonies died. But in suitable Goonie fashion, the San Jose Earthqukes at least made it a bit of a spectacle with some late-game dramatics and plenty of intrigue along the way.

Truth be told, plenty of pundits saw this coming. For whatever reason, the experts around the league never seemed to entirely believe that the Earthquakes' glorious regular season was going to translate into the franchise's third-ever MLS Cup. They saw a very talented LA Galaxy team lining up against them in the Western Conference Semifinals and they figured the luck had to run out.

But the Earthquakes should not be written off so easily. This was, after all, one of the best regular seasons in MLS history. Their 66 points were the third highest total in the 17-year history of the league. Their plus-29 goal-difference was second only to the 1998 Galaxy team that managed to outscore their opponents by 41 goals.

The Earthquakes did not get their simply by luck, flopping, drawing unfair penalties or scoring last-second goals. Sure, those things may have contributed, but people have been looking for reasons to devalue this team's accomplishments all year. This was a team that defied expectations and really looked to be a team capable of winning it all.

So what happened against the Galaxy?

The biggest thing was the injury to Victor Bernardez. The Earthquakes have not had a great defense all year, but Bernardez was having a Best XI type of campaign. He was a big, bruising presence that kept teams from being able to get balls into the box. He was quick enough to keep from getting beat.

Once he went out, the Quakes were much more vulnerable and it didn't take long for the Galaxy to exploit them. Robbie Keane's 21st minute goal came on a shot from about 22 yards out. Notably, Ike Opara, who replaced Bernardez, was late in closing down Keane on the shot. As a result, Keane had plenty of space despite being surrounded by five Earthquakes players.

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Opara was in the middle of the mess again on what turned out to be the Galaxy's second goal. With Donovan leading a 3-on-4 counterattack, Keane is able to slip behind Opara, round the keeper and deposit the ball in an empty net. Opara is caught totally flat-footed on the play and is largely responsible for the wide open look.

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There was a similar defensive breakdown on the Galaxy's third goal. This time, it wasn't Opara's fault, but there was clearly some miscommunication as Landon Donovan was allowed to take a throw-in from deep in the Earthquakes' end, gravitate toward the endline and whip in a cross with on one near him. Mike Magee ended up with a relatively wide open look from about 10 yards out.

Screen_shot_2012-11-08_at_12The Earthquakes, to their credit, created more than enough chances to at least for extra time. Chris Wondolowski, himself, had three good looks that all went wanting. Opara even had a rather inviting chance in stoppage time, but he sailed his shot over the crossbar.

That the Earthquakes fell well short of their goal was not so much a product of their luck catching up to them. Rather, it was about some sloppy breakdowns occurring in instances they had largely avoided during the regular season.

What we're left with, then, is what should be considered one of the more spectacular flops in playoff history. Of those other top regular-season teams, only one had failed to advance at least to the conference finals. The Earthquakes had put themselves in an ideal situation, doing just enough to take a 1-0 lead to the stadium in which they hadn't lost all season.

That they failed in such spectacular fashion doesn't invalidate what they accomplished. This team deserved to be here. It's just that, unlike in the movies, the rich guys sometimes get the final laugh.

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