Colorado Rapids punished for poor set-piece defending in loss to San Jose Earthquakes

In the 69th minute of Wednesday's game against the San Jose Earthquakes, Colorado Rapids goalkeeper Clint Irwin made a brilliant diving save, only to get to his feet and scream at his backline for allowing the chance in the first place.

Apparently nobody wearing burgundy heard him.

Thirty-five seconds later, the seemingly inevitable Earthquakes goal arrived. The Rapids left another player open on a set piece and, sure enough, Chris Wondolowski punished a header past Irwin for the 1-0 lead.

That goal proved the only one of the match, but it was symbolic of a series of set-piece defensive blunders for the Rapids, who fell 1-0 at Buck Shaw Stadium and are now clinging to the final playoff spot in the Western Conference by a single point.

“We lost the game on one set-piece play, but we could have easily conceded another goal on crosses,” Rapids head coach Oscar Pareja told reporters after the game. “It’s a game where we came prepared to live with that style of play, but you have to accept that sometimes you can’t. And tonight, we couldn’t figure that out, sadly for the game. But that’s the way the game went.”

In the first half, Earthquakes striker Alan Gordon had three open, clean looks at goal, two from corner kicks and the other following a free kick. Gordon’s ninth-minute header smashed off the post, summing up an offensive onslaught for San Jose and defensive woes for Colorado, particularly on set pieces.

On at least half of their eight corners on the night, the Earthquakes managed a quality opportunity, a bewildering turn of events for a Rapids defense that had prided itself on improved set-piece defending this year.

“I think it’s unfortunate that the goal eventually came off a corner kick,” Rapids defender Drew Moor told reporters postgame. “Set pieces are one aspect of the game that we try to control and that we work a lot on.”

In the 82nd minute, Gordon nearly doubled the San Jose lead with yet another open header. And while the Earthquakes managed only one goal on the night, their 16-5 advantage in shots was indicator enough of which team was more dangerous – and desperate – on the night. The result kept the Earthquakes alive in the playoff race and forces Colorado into a pressure-packed home-and-home series with Vancouver.

“We weren’t able to find the game tonight," Moor said. "It’s a missed opportunity. We’ve made it a little bit harder for ourselves.”

Chris Bianchi covers the Colorado Rapids for MLSsoccer.com.