When the law of averages finally caught up with the San Jose Earthquakes, the consequences were painful to an above-average degree.
Having taken ownership of the Western Conference’s top spot thanks partly to back-to-back victories last month secured by stoppage-time game-winners, the Quakes saw their seven-match unbeaten streak meet its untimely end in similar fashion on Saturday.
GOAL: Wondo heads home opener
Eric Hassli’s 94th-minute goal, kicking in off the far post, gave the Vancouver Whitecaps a 2-1 victory at the death. It was San Jose’s first defeat since March 17, and left a bitter taste in the mouth of coach Frank Yallop, who felt both Hassli’s game-winner and Gershon Koffie’s first-half equalizer sprang from a lack of concentration on the Quakes’ part.
“I just felt we mentally switched off on the set play and at the end of the game,” Yallop said. “You’ve got to keep sharp for 90 minutes. It’s our third game in a week, but it’s no excuse. We’ve still got to see that game out and make sure we don’t give up anything in the last five or 10 minutes of the game.”
Not even the further heroics of Chris Wondolowski -- who extended his lead in the Golden Boot race with his 11th goal of the season, and 19th in his last 19 MLS matches -- could overcome San Jose’s miscues.
“The goal means nothing with the loss,” Wondolowski said. “We let up two goals in the last five minutes of each half, and that’ll come back and bite you. We’ve got to be a little bit mentally stronger.”
Adding insult to Hassli’s goal was the fact that he had almost put Vancouver ahead in the 93rd minute, when he sped down the right wing and latched onto a lead pass from Koffie. But the Frenchman, who came into Saturday mired in a 17-match scoreless streak, pushed that effort wide of the near post.
“We should have learned on the one Hassli had right before the goal, where he puts a shot wide,” Quakes goalkeeper Jon Busch said. “That should have clicked in our brains that, ‘Hey, let’s just lock it down and get out of here with a point.’”
Instead, Hassli — left to roam free by Justin Morrow but kept onside by Ike Opara — shot through the middle of San Jose’s backline and intersected with a grounded through ball from Davide Chiumiento just inside the Quakes’ penalty area. Busch got a hand to Hassli’s delivery, but couldn’t quite push it to safety.
Yallop echoed: “It’s not good when someone like him gets behind our back four unopposed and gets a free shot at goal.”
Whether the loss heralds a new, unwanted streak or if it becomes simply an aberration could depend on how the Quakes cope with yet another blow to their already banged-up backline. Jason Hernandez, a San Jose stalwart from the club’s 2008 expansion season, went down with what appeared to be an injury to his right calf, which has been an on-and-off problem for years. Opara replaced Hernandez at the half.
With Victor Bernardez still working his way back from a sprained ligament in his left knee, if Hernandez has to sit for any length of time, it would leave the Quakes with just two available center backs, neither of whom can boast a bevy of MLS experience in those spots. Morrow played primarily left back and left midfield prior to being pressed into service in central defense this spring, and Opara has seen each of his first two pro seasons cut short with a broken left foot.
In addition, Opara’s been playing through a hamstring problem of late because the Quakes are shorthanded.
“It’s a learning experience for us,” Busch said. “We’ve got to stick together here. It’s very disappointing, but when a point’s on the table that late in the game, on the road, we’ve got to take them. ... I think maybe we got a little greedy trying to get three points.”
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Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com.