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Thursday, November 8, 2012
The one that got away from San Jose

By Jeff Carlisle

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- It had been a little over an hour since the San Jose Earthquakes' season had ended in a 3-1 playoff defeat to the Los Angeles Galaxy. But already the Quakes' locker room was empty, save for the forlorn figure of Jon Busch.

The San Jose goalkeeper had taken off his jersey but was otherwise still in uniform, staring straight ahead while spitting tobacco juice into a Gatorade bottle. It was almost as if by keeping most of his uniform on, Busch would somehow be able to keep San Jose's magical season going.

Of course, he couldn't. All the crazy comebacks, stoppage-time goals and "Goonies never say die" mentality had been washed away, at least for the moment, by a ruthlessly efficient display from the Galaxy. Three first-half goals more than wiped out San Jose's one-goal lead from the first leg and despite a late goal from substitute from Alan Gordon, the Quakes couldn't conjure up another miracle.

"We gave it everything we had again," Busch said. "Unfortunately just a touch short tonight. I really felt like once we got that first one we were going to get a second one and get it into overtime. It just didn't happen for us tonight. Credit goes to L.A. -- they did just enough to survive."

As Busch talked more about the night's disappointment, he hit upon one critical difference between the two sides: L.A.'s been-there, done-that championship experience. Granted, several members of the Quakes -- Busch among them -- have been tested in the playoffs before. But for players such as Justin Morrow, Rafael Baca, Simon Dawkins and Steven Beitashour, 2012 saw them earn their first playoff minutes. For other performers such as Sam Cronin and Chris Wondolowski, their on-field experience was limited to the three postseason games the team played in 2010.

"[The Galaxy] are defending champions for a reason," said Busch. "They have the experience, they've been there. For this group, it's obviously going to hurt for a while, but it's part of the growing pains, getting the experience. For the young guys on this team, we took huge strides from last year to this year... We'll learn from it."

One player who took the result especially hard was league-leading scorer Wondolowski. The presumptive MLS MVP had some good looks at goal but didn't convert; afterward, he bravely tried to assume responsibility.

"I had three very good chances, missed all three, and I let the team down," he said.

But the reality is that all season long, the Quakes adopted a high-risk approach with which they piled numbers forward in an attempt to outscore opponents, leaving themselves vulnerable in the back. Certainly there were moments where the individual brilliance of defenders Victor Bernardez and Jason Hernandez -- along with the goalkeeping of Busch -- kept teams at bay. But the suspicion was that this approach would only take them so far in the playoffs as San Jose's goals allowed average of 1.26 ranked only seventh out of the 10 playoff teams.

Busch himself sounded a warning back in September that the team couldn't continue to put itself in a position where it was having to come from behind. That the comment proved prescient wasn't something he wanted to be reminded of.

"We lost, end of [expletive] story is we lost," he said. "We played a good team. It's hard to beat a quality team like that five times in a row in one season. We went 3-1-1 with [L.A.]. That's a pretty damn good record against the defending champions. It hurts because we lost the most important one."

And despite an outstanding season, it's a feeling that won’t go away any time soon.