GALAXY: Good but not good enough

The Galaxy was at its early-season best for about 18 minutes Saturday night. Then Sean Franklin volleyed Jamie Smith’s corner kick off Edson Buddle’s shoulder and into L.A.’s net, pulling the Colorado Rapids even before they’d taken a shot.

That’s the kind of game it was for the Galaxy (17-7-5), which lost for the first time this season after scoring first (they were 16-0-0) and for the first time when Buddle, MLS’s goals leader, finds the net (they were 11-0-1).

“I didn’t think we played a bad game tonight,” coach Bruce Arena said. “but we were certainly punished for our mistakes.”

The own goal was just the most brutal of the errors. A Michael Stephens giveaway was quickly punished in the 30th minute, with Conor Casey finishing Omar Cummings’ low cross against substandard marking, and the Rapids’ defense was able to do what the Galaxy’s couldn’t: Get in the way when chances were conceded and minimize the impact of L.A.’s possession.

There’s a lesson there for the Galaxy, which needs to be more like Colorado was tonight -- or more like they were in that fabulous 10-0-2 stretch to start the season -- if they want to claim the MLS Cup title next month.

“You have to be almost perfect for four games [in the playoffs],” captain Landon Donovan said. “[The Rapids] didn’t play very well tonight, but they were good with their chances, and I don’t know how many blocks they had, how many saves, punches, deflections that helped them. They made all those little plays that make a big difference.”

The Galaxy got backline leader Gregg Berhalter back (his first game in two months following what had been described as a mysterious virus) and that’s a big plus, even if he was, as Arena put it, “rusty.” His ability to organize the defense is crucial; among defenders, only left back Todd Dunivant, who sat this one out with an abductor strain, has anything close to the veteran know-how Berhalter possesses.

The Galaxy needs to mark better. Omar Cummings, the fastest and perhaps most dynamic attacker in MLS, tormented the Galaxy defense when he had the chance. The only likely playoff foe similar to Cummings is Seattle winger Steve Zakuani, who has been at his best the past six weeks or so.

Buddle, whose 17th goal gave L.A. a ninth-minute lead, is playing his best since that golden start. With David Beckham, who constantly served dangerous balls from the right flank, nearly in top form, the Galaxy is going to have opportunities. It’s up to Buddle and Donovan to finish them.

The Galaxy’s great start was built on Buddle’s presence in front of the net and otherworldly defending by, especially, Berhalter, Omar Gonzalez and goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts. If they’re anywhere close to that form, they could be parading the trophy come Nov. 21. If not, there are teams in much better form (Real Salt Lake and Seattle, in particular) or with a superior lineup (New York).