SANTA CLARA, Calif. — To Bobby Burling, only one word could adequately describe the goal his San Jose Earthquakes defense allowed Saturday night in a 1-1 tie with Sporting Kansas City:
“It’s soft,” Burling said, “in every sense of the word.”
In allowing Teal Bunbury and C.J. Sapong to conspire, unmolested, for an equalizer mere seconds after the restart from Chris Wondolowski’s 85th-minute score, the Quakes didn’t just kill off any celebration of Wondolowski’s ascent past Landon Donovan into second place on the club’s list of all-time goal-scorers, they also provided yet another perfect example of why last year’s team went to the Eastern Conference finals and this year’s squad – winless in 17 of their last 18 matches, owners of a 6-11-13 record with three games remaining – is just about mathematically assured of going on vacation come November.
“We just switched off,” Quakes goalkeeper Jon Busch said. “That’s a mentality. We need to say, ‘Look at the clock. We’ve got four minutes left. Let’s finish this game off.’ Good teams that go deep in the playoffs win that game 1-0. Plain and simple.”
The Quakes’ inability to close out close victories is made more galling by the fact that they were so stupendously successful in 2010 at doing exactly that.
Last year, San Jose went a sparkling 13-0-2 in games where they scored first, a scintillating .911 record that saw them week after week able to masterfully marshal a one-goal lead to safety.
This season, the Quakes are 5-3-5 when going up 1-0, good for a winning percentage of just .577.
“To be one-nil up [in the] 85th minute and concede within five seconds is not good,” Quakes coach Frank Yallop said. “It kind of just sums everything up this year. When we need to get a win, we can’t do it.”
In three of their last four matches, while clawing desperately to try to remain relevant in the MLS playoff chase, San Jose have broken out on top.
See those wins out, and San Jose would have had nine points in the standings. Instead, they got only two – one from a 1-1 tie in Colorado last weekend, and another from Saturday.
Bunbury’s equalizer was perhaps the most painful of all the goals San Jose have allowed of late because of the fashion in which it came about. Bunbury touched the ball off the restart to Jeferson, who fed it on the right wing to Sapong, cutting in front of Quakes midfielder Simon Dawkins.
Sapong held off Dawkins, cut inside Justin Morrow and Sam Cronin, and threaded a through ball past Jason Hernandez. Bunbury beat a sliding Burling to the bouncing ball, striping it under a diving Busch.
“It’s one of those plays where maybe it’s, ‘He got it, I got it, he has it, I don’t have it, I don’t have it, I don’t got it,’ and then the next thing you know, the ball comes squirting through,” Burling said. “To give up a goal like that is just really deflating.”
Said Yallop: “We had probably five guys that could have affected the play. … You’ve got to mean business with five minutes left in the game. You’ve got to go in hard and stop the play, no matter what it takes.”
Theories about what’s happened to San Jose’s missing-in-action killer instinct abound, but solutions are not as forthcoming.
“If I had ideas, I’d be sharing them in the locker room, I’ll tell you that,” Busch said. “It’s a mentality, it’s professionalism. Whatever you want to call it, it’s about finishing games off. And unfortunately, we didn’t again tonight.
“That’s something we have to learn. It’s happened too many times this year. We have to be better finishing off games with a lead, because right now, we’re not very good at it.”
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. On Twitter: @sjquakes