SANTA CLARA, Calif. — All season long, when the San Jose Earthquakes lost one player, they’d plug in another without a dip in production, a never-slowing conveyer belt of goals, comebacks and movie-themed mottos on a relentless march to the franchise’s second Supporters’ Shield.
All season long until the postseason, that is.
The ravages of injuries caught up to the Quakes at the worst possible time Wednesday, and combined with a rapacious LA Galaxy attack, it added up to a 3-1 loss on the pitch and a 3-2 defeat on aggregate in the clubs’ Western Conference Semifinal.
Target forward Alan Gordon was hobbled by a sprained right ankle. Fellow banger Steven Lenhart was dealing with a torn knee meniscus that will require surgery, according to Gordon. To cap it all off, star defender Víctor Bernárdez was forced to the bench after 12 minutes due to a sprained right knee.
“It was a shame we didn’t go into the playoffs at full strength and playing our better soccer,” Quakes coach Frank Yallop said. “We were playing pretty well, but not at the top of our game, because of the injuries, I think.”
San Jose came into the playoffs on a nine-match unbeaten streak, but with three ties from their last four regular-season games.
LA looked dangerous from the opening kickoff, but that menace increased exponentially after Bernárdez, a game-time decision, admitted he couldn’t continue. Opara, who warmed up pregame but stood down when Bernárdez declared himself available, entered the maelstrom with just 36 minutes under his belt since Sept. 19.
“I can’t even explain how tough that is, just to get thrown in there in the 12th minute, when they’re throwing wave after wave at you,” Quakes star Chris Wondolowski said.
No one in San Jose’s locker room would assign blame on LA’s goals, but it appeared that Opara had the best chance to step up to Robbie Keane before the Irish international dribbled through the Quakes’ midfield and pinged home a 22-yard shot off the post in the 21st minute.
Opara also was left flatfooted, along with San Jose’s entire backline, as Keane ghosted in behind them in the 34th minute, collected a through ball from Landon Donovan and rounded goalkeeper Jon Busch with relative ease.
“As a professional, you have to be ready for anything,” Opara said of his hurried substitution. “Is it ideal? No. It took me a while to get involved, and unfortunately, I wish I could have some of that time back.”
Mike Magee finished a dream first half for LA by one-timing another dish by Donovan in the 39th minute.
“You could see that their attacking play is arguably the best in the league, in terms of how they move off the ball,” Opara said. “Getting thrown into the fire that way, it’s never easy. They put so many guys in the box from the midfield, make it tough for your defenders, your midfielders ahead of you. It’s very difficult to mark.
"That’s how they got two of their goals: great movement, and we couldn’t really handle it.”
Gordon, who was limited to a reserve role in the series, scored in the 82nd minute to pull the Quakes within a goal on aggregate, but the Goonies’ magic had finally run out. Cruelly, the last chance was left to Opara, who blasted his shot from eight yards off target.
“That’s nightmares, I guess,” Opara said of the shot. “I’m going to have nightmares for a while. Obviously, we had some other chances we could have put away, so it doesn’t necessarily come down to that shot at the end, but it feels like it. I wish I could have it back, but it is what it is.”
And with that, the Galaxy made their great escape, coming up with their first win in five tries against San Jose this season.
“It’s hard to beat the same team five times in one different season,” Busch said. “We did it three times, tied one and lost one. ... Unfortunately, we lost the one that matters the most, and that stings. It hurts.”
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.