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Drilling down on: San Jose Earthquakes 1, at LA Galaxy 0

Nov 5, 2012, 12:41 AM EDT

San Jose Earthquakes v Los Angeles Galaxy - Western Conference Semifinals Getty Images

The LA Galaxy were left stunned Sunday night after a 94th minute free kick from Victor Bernardez gave San Jose a 1-0 victory, leaving the defending Major League Soccer champions on the edge of elimination ahead of the second leg of their Western Conference semifinal.

An often cagey match in front of 27,000 at Home Depot Center was brought to life late when Robbie Keane nearly put the home team in front, his the 86th minute shot from 22 yards nailing Jon Busch’s crossbar.

Eight minutes later, when Marcelo Sarvas fouled Simon Dawkins 30 yards from LA’s goal, Bernardez put San Jose in front, his free kick skidding beneath a jumping Omar Gonzalez and under a diving Josh Saunders to give the Supporters’ Shield winners their 10th extra time goal of the season.

Man of the Match: Before his goal, Victor Bernardez was close to leaving the game, the Honduran international having injured his right leg late in the match. With San Jose out of substitutions, the defender had little choice but to continue, a decision that almost came back to haunt the Earthquakes when he appeared to aggravate the injury in the 92nd minute.

Two minutes later, Bernardez was the man behind the ball, set for a 15-yard run up on what looked like it would be more of a prayer than a shot. But thanks to a hop from Gonzalez and a slow reaction from Saunders, Bernardez snagged San Jose’s match winner.

Threesome of knowledge: What we learned

Sometimes they feel like first legs.

Friday (Seattle-Real Salt Lake) and Sunday afternoon (Houston-Sporting Kansas City) debunked the notion that the first game of a two-legged series has to be a conservative affair. Unfortunately, tonight’s game gave us more of what we saw between D.C. United and New York – two teams taking a wait-and-see approach over the first half of a 180-minute game.

Over the first 45 minutes, with the teams combined for one shot on goal. Most of the game was played in the middle third between two sides more concerned with avoiding big mistakes than making something happen. The league’s two best attacks were waiting for the other guy to mess up.

When the second half started, it was more of the same, though at the hour mark, LA started pushing for a goal. In the 65th minute, Jon Busch was called on to make his first save of the match, with Keane nearly stealing a lead for the Galaxy in the 86th.

For San Jose, a conservative approach made sense. They were on the road against the defending champions. If somebody offered them a 0-0 before the game, they would have snatched it, said thank you, and spent three hours at the beach before their flight home.

LA’s tactics were a little more confusing, though when you think back on the team’s last week of action, you see why Bruce Arena’s team looked so flat.

LA was either out of gas, conserving energy, or just off.

Arena played a full team last Sunday in their meaningless season finale against Seattle. On Thursday, he team spent near-70 minutes chasing the game against Vancouver, who took a shock third minute lead in the teams’ knockout round match. Even though they were all at home, Los Angeles was playing their third game in eight ways, not an ideal schedule for a team built around David Beckham, Landon Donovan, and Robbie Keane.

So if Los Angeles wanted to slow down Sunday’s game and try to steal it late, you couldn’t blame them. If Keane’s late blast was two or three inches lower, the plan would have worked. Bruce Arena would have been hailed as a magician.

But for whatever reason – fatigue, tactics, or just a flat performance – LA did not look themselves tonight, and when they take the field at Buck Shaw on Wednesday, the Galaxy’s aging core will be playing their fourth game in 11 days.

San Jose did it again, but don’t read too much into it.

The Earthquakes are up to 23 goals after the 75th minute. Chivas USA only scored 24 goals all season. As much as we’ve marveled at it throughout the year, San Jose’s late-match exploits remain an amazing (and probably under-appreciated) part of their success.

Tonight, however, they were outplayed over the last quarter hour. Los Angeles looked far more likely to score, and although you can explain the end result as San Jose’s ability to win against all odds, Bernardez’s goal was less their doing than the result of three Galaxy mistakes (Sarvas’s foul, Gonzalez’s hop, Saunders’ whiff).

San Jose’s results long ago established their end-game bonafides, and with their depth and tactics, you can see why they score so many late goals. Sunday, however, was less about never say die than being the beneficiaries of a gift from their opponents.

Packaged for takeaway:

  • Bruce Arena shuffled his team, starting Marcelo Sarvas, pushing David Beckham out right, and having Landon Donovan partner Robbie Keane up top. Add the return of right back Sean Franklin and four of LA’s 11 starting positions changed from Thursday night.
  • Beckham’s night was quiet or ineffective, depending on how hard you want to be on him. While he put in a few dangerous crosses, most of his service was lacking, and he was often seen walking back to his defensive position. He failed to connect on any of his 11 crosses and was subbed off in the 78th minute, Bruce Arena’s only change of the match.
  • San Jose elected to go with Ramiro Corrales in midfield, with Simon Dawkins starting on the bench. The Tottenham loanee was listed as probable on the injury report and eventually came on for Martín Chavez in the last half hour.
  • Up until his stoppage time gaff, Saunders had quietly put in a strong night, making three or four nice reads to kill attacks before they became dangerous.
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