Over the last two weeks, the San Jose Earthquakes raised hopes that a playoff miracle might yet be within their reach, taking four points from two matches. Yet in Saturday's 3-0 loss to the Columbus Crew, those aspirations all but disappeared, as the team reverted to their early-season habit of making backbreaking mistakes.
It was a match that was relatively even over the first hour, one in which the Quakes and the Crew traded some quality chances. But the second half introduction of Columbus attackers Alejandro Moreno and Emmanuel Ekpo tipped the scales in the visitors' favor. In the 69th minute, Ekpo's cross found Robbie Rogers at the back post, and his header across the face of goal found a wide open Moreno, who nodded home the game-winner.
"It was Jekyll and Hyde," said manager Frank Yallop. "We did ever so well last week [against Seattle]. It seemed like we were doing OK today, but then the goal basically killed us."
Did it ever. As has happened so often this season after conceding a goal, the Quakes fragile confidence evaporated. Heads dropped, concentration lagged, and the Crew then went about putting the game way. Rogers scored four minutes later with 10-yard dart into the upper left hand corner of Joe Cannon's goal. Another substitute, Adam Moffat, finished off the scoring with a deflected effort in the 87th minute from Gino Padula's corner.
It was a result that raised the question of how much the unfamiliar surroundings of Candlestick Park affected San Jose's game. But none of the Quakes were ready to use that as an excuse. Instead, the team focused on the all-too-familiar series of events that transpired in the second half.
"It's been the story of our season," said forward Cornell Glen. "It's been going on for quite a time, that we get scored on and we just give up. It's very disappointing."
It was Glen who came closest to scoring in the first half. In the 30th minute, his quick turn around Crew defender Chad Marshall created plenty of space near the top of the box, but Columbus goalkeeper William Hesmer was able to turn Glen's blistering shot around the post, keeping the score level.
"I kind of stretched [for the ball] a bit, and I wasn't expecting it to be hit that well," said Glen. "But the 'keeper made a great save, and that was that."
The Crew finished the half on the front foot, squandering two quality chances. But a relatively wide open first half gave way to a cagier opening in the second half. Even then the Quakes looked capable of getting something out of the game, at least until the introduction of Moreno and Ekpo.
"I really can't explain the reason for putting together a solid first half, and then the lack of concentration and the lack of our ability to make plays in the second half," said Quakes captain Jason Hernandez. "As you can see, it makes all the difference in the result. In front of the goal, they took their opportunities well, and they finished, and we didn't create too many in the second half."
The question now is: How do the Quakes regroup with the season seemingly lost? Glen insisted that the only way forward is for the team to redouble their efforts.
"We have to get back to the training pitch and work twice as hard," said Glen. "There are still points out there to be won, and the season is not over yet. If we work hard enough, anything is possible."
That might strike some as so much mental jujitsu, but there isn't really any other choice. And it's still possible that the recent crop of new acquisitions may yet create some momentum for next season.
"We can't just bow our heads and quit, and I don't think the players are going to do that," said Yallop. "They're very disappointed in there, but for me, we've just got to keep going."
Jeff Carlisle is a contributor to MLSnet.com