SAN JOSE, Calif. – The San Jose Earthquakes enter the 2012 MLS Cup playoffs with the league’s best record, a nine-match unbeaten streak and a keen awareness that neither of those accomplishments will mean a thing when they take field Sunday to open their Western Conference semifinal.
All it takes is a couple of momentary lapses, and just like the 2005 Quakes – the only other San Jose team to win the Supporters’ Shield – this year’s edition could find themselves knocked out long before the MLS Cup final.
“Everything’s just magnified, in the fact that you have to do all the little things,” Quakes forward Chris Wondolowski said. “All these games are so close and come down to mental mistakes or things of that nature. Every set piece, every foul is that much more important.”
Echoed Alan Gordon: “There’s less forgiveness for errors. When you make mistakes, you’re punished, and there’s no second chances. Once you’re out, you’re out. Everything matters. Every little play, we have to be focused. We have to be completely tuned in as a team, which is what got us here; being a good team.”
The Quakes last lost on an Aug. 18 trip to Montreal, and have outscored MLS opponents 24-11 since then. But with four ties in their last six games, San Jose don’t have the feel of a juggernaut ready to steamroll playoff opposition.
“Have we been playing our best soccer lately? I wouldn’t say that,” Gordon said. “But we haven’t been losing. We’re not on a bad streak. I think we’re all ready to amp up. Momentum’s still in our favor.”
It won’t be for long, however, unless the Quakes can stop conceding goals that are, simply put, too easy for opponents to earn.
Coach Frank Yallop described the LA Galaxy’s two goals in a 2-2 tie on Oct. 21 as “pretty soft” and thought Bright Dike’s score in Portland’s 1-1 decision Saturday was more of the same. Dike glommed onto a loose ball just inside San Jose’s box, fired once, then jammed home his own rebound to convert in the 67th minute; the Timbers hadn’t recorded a shot on goal to that point.
“The conceding of goals is what we’ll tighten up,” Yallop said. “We’ve got to make sure we’re not leaking goals, that’s for sure. We’re a team that attacks, so the way we play is open. But I think we’ve given up some soft goals. The one on Saturday was really soft. Should have been a 1-0 win, to be honest. That’s the only chance, I felt, that Portland had on net.”
Defender Jason Hernandez agreed with that sentiment – as well as the idea that no team is going to blitz its way to the crown behind a series of 4-1 and 3-0 victories, even one that’s scored a franchise-record 72 goals this season, as San Jose did.
“Even though we’re a very dynamic team offensively and we like to be creative and really get after our opponents, we’re going to have to hold each other accountable on the defense side of things,” Hernandez said. “Because if we can’t keep the ball out of our net, it’s not really going to matter.”
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.