After a 1-0 win in the first leg of the Western Conference semifinal over LA Galaxy, all that San Jose Earthquakes needed was a draw at home in the second leg at Buck Shaw Stadium. They have not lost at home all season, and were riding 18 games unabated streak. The chances to advanced looked good on paper.
But playing last season's MLS Cup champion in the first round of playoffs is never an easy draw. After 90 minutes of play the scoreboard was showing 3-1 for LA Galaxy and the Quakes season was over. The players fell to the ground in shock and disbelief and could not get up for a while. This was for sure not how they expected the season to end.
The key moment that changed the game came just 12 minutes in. Victor Bernandez has been as important to the Quakes success this season as anyone else, cementing the back end of play with his solid defensive reads and moves. But at that point in the game he fell to the ground after a foul and sprained his right knee. Already playing banged up, Bernandez was unable to continue and Quakes head coach Frank Yallop substituted him out of the game and let Ike Opara take his spot.
"Bernandez has been a huge part of our defense and part of our team," said Chris Wondolowski. "He organizes us, and he's a great defender."
"It's pretty tough to lose Vic so early into the game," said Frank Yallop. "You lose arguable your best defender. You lose a little chemistry. Ike has not played for a while. It's not easy to lose someone of that statue back there."
The lack of playing time for Opara showed right away. He could not find a way to cope with the Irish superstar Robbie Keane who was just as dangerous in his zone as he was in the last game when he was arguably the best player on the field. With 20 minutes into the game, Keane received a ball 30 yards away from the goal. With space open before him, he gained speed and with 20 yards out Opara was just a couple of steps too far, giving Keane space to fire a bullet on goal. His shot was low and on target and Busch was unable to stop it, giving Galaxy 1-0 advantage.
Chris Wondolowski had a great chance to tie the game shortly after as he got the ball right in front of the net and only had to put it on goal. But he was unable to keep the ball down, and sent it over the bar.
But only minutes later, it was Keane shocking the crowd at Buck Shaw Stadium with another goal. Landon Donovan assisted on that one, as he sent Keane on one-on-one duel against Busch. Keane was moving much faster than the Quakes keeper, and with a simple move he dribbed the ball past him and into an empty net. Opara was once again slow on that play, as he should have been covering Keane in that zone, but the Irish blew right past him.
Landon Donovan was in the spotlight again not long after, as he sent the cross from the wing into the feet of Mike Magee, who shot it low and into the net to make it 3-0 for LA in the first half.
Having scored one goal in LA in the first game, Quakes could have tied the match on aggregate with only two goals. They have spent most of second half attacking, and Alan Gordon scored with eight minutes left in the second half to make it a one-goal-game.
The Quakes have done the improbable and scored late game goals in many games this season. They were calling themselves Goonies and the phrase "Never say die" was often heard in the locker room after comeback victories. Were they going to leave up to their reputation once more and take the game to overtime?
Ike Opara had the chance to do just that as he had the ball in front of the goalkeeper's box with just Josh Saunders to beat - but he missed. The Quakes did not come back in this game, and the loss ended their season.
"We didn't play well, for whatever reason," said Frank Yallop. "I thought we had plenty of chances, but we didn't play very well. I think Wondo would like that one back when it was 1-0, which makes the difference. Ike at the end had a great chance. I'm surprised we didn't play our game."
Was Bernandez absence on the field the main factor in Quakes loss? Well, it never is, and after the game it was revealed that many players were playing through injuries. Bernandez himself started injured after the first game in LA. Steven Lenhart tore his meniscus two weeks before and only his desire to help the team in playoffs stopped him from surgery. Likewise, Alan Gordon had an ankle injury.
"It was a shame we didn't go into playoffs in full strength playing our better soccer," said Frank Yallop. "We played pretty well, but not at the top of our game because of the injuries."
The Quakes and their fans lived the season they will not soon forget. Multiple come-from-behind wins, Chris Wondolowski's record-tying 27 goals, and Supporter's Shield capped one of the best regular seasons in MLS history. The core of the team is poised to come back this season, and this experience is valuable for the future.
"We have a great team and a great group of guys here," said Quakes goalkeeper Jon Busch. "We need to be proud of what we did this year.... If we want to improve and go deeper into the playoffs next year, we need to learn from tonight and make the necessary adjustments and sacrifices to be the last ones standing."
The Quakes failed to reach the ultimate goal of winning the MLS Cup - and that's how 2012 will be remembered in their history. But the future of this team is bright if it stays together, and this season was a major step forward towards the ultimate goal of championship.