CARSON, Calif. -- Josh Saunders punted the ball away as soon as he got two hands firmly on it, but it was too late.
The Los Angeles Galaxy goalkeeper let a controversial free kick slip from his hands and into his net in stoppage time, giving the San Jose Earthquakes a 1-0 advantage just 90 seconds before the final whistle of the first leg of the teams' Western Conference semifinal series. To advance and defend their 2011 MLS Cup title, the Galaxy will have to beat San Jose by two goals in the return leg in the Bay Area on Wednesday (8 p.m. PT, ESPN2).
After Marcelo Sarvas fouled San Jose substitute Simon Dawkins, Earthquakes center back Victor Bernardez delivered a low ball with pace that deflected off the left foot of Galaxy center back Omar Gonzalez and spun just before it reached the Saunders.
He appeared to touch the ball with both hands as he dove left, but a final bounce pushed the ball below his left shoulder and into the net.
The Galaxy disputed the foul call afterward, with forward Landon Donovan saying he suspected referee Ricardo Salazar would "probably say it was a mistake."
"If that's a foul in this game, then there's a hundred fouls," Galaxy coach Bruce Arena said in a testy postgame news conference.
Los Angeles appeared in control for most of the match, never coming particularly close to a goal until the final half-hour but maintaining possession the majority of the time.
"It was never a game you would think that we would lose," Donovan said afterward. "We probably weren't sharp enough in the offensive third of the field, but at worst we thought we'd go up there 0-0 and just have to get a goal."
The two teams have played to some dramatic finishes this season, with a combined 15 goals in three previous matches and a lead change in every one. As is typical for leadoff legs under MLS rules, both teams seemed fairly content to make Wednesday's match the decider.
Now, the Galaxy need a dominating performance from Saunders on Wednesday at Buck Shaw Stadium in Santa Clara and at least two goals from their attack. The Earthquakes lost just one of their 34 regular-season games by two or more goals this year, and none at home.
"Our mindset doesn't change," Beckham said. "We always felt that we'd have to go to San Jose and win the game."
L.A.'s best chance to score Sunday came in the 86th minute, when Robbie Keane's strong strike went off the left goalpost. Edson Buddle had the ball alone in the box two minutes later but made a misguided attempt at a pass to Keane and failed to challenge San Jose keeper Jon Busch.
Donovan and Keane were off all night, especially when Juninho delivered a nice ball to Donovan in the 39th minute and the Galaxy veteran passed the ball three yards behind an open Keane in the box.
Beckham's passes and crosses were, as usual, on target, but Sunday's game broke his MLS record of five straight postseason games with an assist. He had at least one in all four playoff contests last season and added one in Thursday's wild-card win over Vancouver.
Final notes: San Jose rabble-rouser Steven Lenhart drew a chorus of boos when he exited the game in the 65th minute in favor of former Galaxy forward Alan Gordon. The Galaxy's Gonzalez called Lenhart's on-field antics "embarrassing" after the two teams' matchup last month. ... San Jose's Chris Wondolowski, who tied the MLS record for goals this season with 27, took four shots on Sunday, including one on goal. ... The Galaxy announced a sellout crowd of 27,000 in what could be their final game at the Home Depot Center until March 2013.