BY Art Thiel 11:18PM 09/22/2012

Thiel: Defeat leaves Sounders 0-3 vs. San Jose

The Sounders let the last, best chance to catch San Jose slip away with a curiously lame first half that led to a 2-1 defeat and an MLS season sweep by the Quakes.

Steve Zakuani scores his first goal since April 2011 past San Jose keeper Jon Busch. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

Not much doubt about the identity of the MLS West’s bad-asses — the San Jose Earthquakes own the Seattle Sounders.

San Jose came to Seattle Saturday night, planted one in the home team’s grill 90 seconds into the match, and the Sounders never quite got over it. The 2-1 defeat meant the Sounders lost all three MLS regular-season matches to San Jose. They have lost only four other MLS games. That’s ownership.

The built-in excuse was that Seattle didn’t have top scorer Eddie Johnson (one-game suspension) or top assist man Mauro Rosales (leg injury), but coach Sigi Schmid wasn’t buying it.

“One or two players wouldn’t have made a difference in that first half,” he said. “We would have been overrun even with Eddie and Mauro.”

Even though the Sounders played a better second half, the first-half face-plant in such a significant game against the team with the best record galled Schmid.

“They killed us in the first half, to be quite honest,” Schmid said.  To be quite honest, he couldn’t have been more right. The first score, a booming straightaway shot from 25 yards by midfielder Simon Dawkins, stunned the Clink crowd of 38,894 as well as the players. The latter is inexcusable.

The Sounders are supposed to be maturing, populated with experienced pros seasoned by international play.  They talked all week as if this game was nearly a must-have, given the record against the Quakes, then treated the first half as a don’t-care.  They were a step slow, seemed to be always backing up, and deferred on too many key duels.

“We really lost in the first 20 minutes because they were able to press us and disrupt our rhythm,” Schmid said. “They were just more aggressive and quicker than we were.”

They had one good moment, in the 14th minute, when Sammy Ochoa, starting in place of Johnson, had a splendid bit of ball possession as he evaded three defenders to send a long worm-burner of a cross straight across the goal mouth.

The pass was behind the San Jose back line, yet in front of goalie Jon Busch and right to the feet of  Zakuani, who had an easy shot from six yards to score his first goal since April,  2011.  The joy for the score, and for Zakuani’s continuing return from injury, lasted 16 minutes.

A corner kick sailed over the muddle in front of the goal and was controlled on the far side by Victor Bernardez, who volleyed a shot that deflected off Chris Wondolowski’s leg past Sounders GK Michael Gspurning for what proved to be the game-winner. It was Wondolowski’s league-leading 22nd goal and an example of how lucky can develop from aggressive play.

Gspurning was aghast not only at the goal but the overall first-half play.

“The way we presented in the first half . . . it was unacceptable,” he said, shaking his head. “If this was the playoffs, we’d be out.”

That how this game was cast, a potential playoff preview with a six-point swing. And the Sounders were swung on. The Quakes (18-6-6) are on their way, with 60 points, to the Supporters Shield for the team with the best over all record, while the Sounders (13-7-9), at 48 points, fell into fourth place, leap-frogged by Real Salt Lake and Los Angeles (49), both of which won Saturday.

With five games left, there’s plenty of time to advance on the ladder, but the issue for the ambitious Sounders is whether they have advanced on San Jose. The answer is no.

“I think it’s a great game from the standpoint that it happened now, and not six weeks from now,” Schmid said.  “We need to take a lesson from this game, that we cannot play like we played in the first half, that we need to play like we played in the second half.

“If we get that out of this game, fine. They win the Supporter’s Shield, they finish first or whatever . . .it doesn’t matter. The playoffs, once we get there, obviously, once we’re in the playoffs, it’s a home game and and away game.”

It’s true that all three losses to San Jose were by a single goal, and the Sounders did beat the Quakes 1-0 in U.S. Open Cup play. But Cup games are often full of bench players deployed to save the legs of starters. And even there’s not a lot of difference between the teams, there’s enough.

“If you look at the games, they’re close,” said San Jose coach Frank Yallop. “The game at our place was a 2-1 win for us. Real close; it could have gone either way.  The game here was 1-nil (in March). Tonight was a close game.  What I’d like to say is that we didn’t deserve to lose the games and we were lucky enough to come out with the victories.”

Victory in any one game can be luck. Three is a trend. Doesn’t mean the Sounders, should the teams meet in the October postseason, can’t prevail. But they’re going to have to talk themselves into it, because nothing in the MLS record will back them up.


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