The San Jose Earthquakes have been riding a stellar summer long defensive effort to the brink of a berth in the MLS Cup playoffs. Unfortunately, their offense was not able to follow suit in a scoreless draw at the LA Galaxy that all but eliminates San Jose from postseason qualification.
The Quakes (13-11-9, 48 points) needed a win at the StubHub Center to keep their scant playoff hopes alive, but instead saw the two-time defending MLS Cup champions effectively end their season for the second straight year.
San Jose enter the last week of the MLS regular season three points behind fifth place Colorado Rapids and could pull even with them with a win and Rapids loss, but the Earthquakes would lose the goals-scored tiebreaker and fail to qualify for the postseason. Colorado has 45 goals this season while the Earthquakes have only 33. In 2012, the Quakes scored a franchise record 72 goals en route to winning the Supporters' Shield.
The Earthquakes had two quality scoring chances in the scoreless draw that were expertly denied by LA goalkeeper Jaime Penedo. The Panamanian international's clean sheet was enough to advance the Galaxy (15-11-7, 52 points) into the postseason with a chance to capture their third straight MLS Cup.
The Quakes still have one last must-win game on the schedule when they host CD Heredia in the last match of the CONCACAF Champions League group stage on Wednesday evening at Buck Shaw Stadium. San Jose completes its MLS regular season with a home match against FC Dallas on Saturday.
The situation going into Sunday's nationally televised match required an Earthquakes win, and interim head coach Mark Watson was able to field his first-choice starting eleven with the season on the line. Target man Steven Lenhart returned to the line-up after serving a red card suspension earned on the same field, two weeks ago against Chivas USA. Three of the Quakes back four featured players freshly returned from international duty: Clarence Goodson for the U.S., Victor Bernardez for Honduras, and Steven Beitashour for Iran.
Goodson was the first to threaten the LA goal, as the center back connected on a quick free kick delivery from Shea Salinas and headed the ball narrowly wide of the target in the 15th minute.
In the 19th minute, LA forward Robbie Keane produced the best chance of the half for the home side when he struck a ball near post that required a smart save by goalkeeper Jon Busch. Sam Cronin was awarded a yellow card a minute later for a professional foul on Keane.
San Jose nearly took advantage of a set piece opportunity in the 27th minute to take the lead as Lenhart directed a Salinas corner kick toward the upper corner of goal, but Penedo leapt horizontally to deflect the ball out of bounds.
Lenhart tried to turn provider in the 40th minute when he escaped from defender Greg Cochrane along the right sideline and rocketed a cross into the area for striking partner Chris Wondolowski. The reigning MLS MVP got a head to the ball, but Penedo was able to again deny San Jose a goal with a spectacular save.
LA finished the first half on the offensive as twice Landon Donovan had open shots in the San Jose area, but twice the former Earthquakes star comfortably missed his intended target.
Scoreless at intermission, the Earthquakes upped their intensity in the second half as they searched for the goal that would keep alive their hopes of making the playoffs. The Galaxy, with designs of going to the top of the Western Conference with a won of its own, was up to the challenge and kept the Quakes at bay.
Bernardez was shown yellow in the 54th minute for a hard tackle on Donovan as the Quakes defense shut down the Galaxy time and time again. Meanwhile, Watson tried to bolster his attacking corps with the introduction of Walter Martinez for Rafael Baca in the 59th minute and Alan Gordon for Cordell Cato in the 75th minute.
In the 80th minute, Salinas worked the ball into the Galaxy area and tried to earn a penalty kick by leaning into his defender, but referee Baldomero Toledo would have nothing of the appeal and waved play on. With time running out and still needing a goal, Watson used his last substitute to bring Mike Fucito in for Beitashour in the 86th minute.
San Jose pressed forward with every man they could over three minutes of stoppage time, but it was not enough to create a scoring opportunity that could earn it the win. The scoreless draw does not officially eliminate the Earthquakes from qualifying for the playoffs, but they would need to overturn a goal deficit of 12 against the Colorado Rapids to have any chance of finishing in the top five in the West.
The Quakes return to Buck Shaw Stadium on Wednesday to face Heredia in the final group stage match of the CONCACAF Champions League. A win would advance San Jose into next year's knockout round of the tournament and possibly provide some solace after missing out on a chance to compete for MLS Cup.