By MARC SERBER
CARSON, California- The LA Galaxy clinched a spot in the postseason for the fifth consecutive season and all but mathematically eliminated the San Jose Earthquakes with a 0-0 draw in front of 25,418 fans at the StubHub Center.
“It was a hard fought contest. Kind of like a playoff atmosphere,” Bruce Arena said in his press conference. “San Jose played a good game, the kind of game we’d thought they’d play and in the end it’s probably a fair result.”
Despite reaching the postseason for the 15th time in the club’s history, Arena and his charges left the StubHub center with a bad taste in their mouths as the Galaxy lost a chance to finish on top of the Western conference and are no longer in the race for the Supporters’ Shield.
In fact, the Galaxy now need at least a draw in Seattle and a Colorado Rapids tie or loss to avoid playing in the knockout round.
Nevertheless, LA had its goalkeeper to thank after Jaime Penedo made two spectacular saves in the first half to keep San Jose off the board. LA now has three straight shutouts and has gone 308 minutes without conceding.
Penedo, a Panamanian international, stamped his authority on the match in the 27th and 41st minutes to deny first Steven Lenhart and then Chris Wondolowski with sensational flying saves to deny free headers from point blank range.
The first half was marked by intriguing individual matches all over the field. LA’s rookie central defender, Kofi Opare did a good job to win the physical battle with Lenhart.
The real focus of the CaliClassico though was on the flanks where San Jose’s Cordell Cato battled with the young Greg Cochrane, while on the other flank, Sean Franklin duled with Shea Salinas, who was San Jose’s biggest threat on the night.
At the other end Jordan Stewart had the pace to match Gyasi Zardes step for step.
Zardes still broke free in the 23rd minute as his diagonal run took him to the byline before sending a cross that sailed just over the head of Landon Donovan who came within inches of breaking Jeff Cunningham’s all time MLS Scoring Record.
Donovan had another chance for goal number 135 when he scoped his shot over Jon Busch, but over the crossbar as well.
The second half was a more open affair. San Jose had no other option but to go for broke and each Earthquake attack had the potential to be matched by the Galaxy on the counter as the visitors threw bodies forward.
Zardes and Donovan switched positions to begin the second half and the move almost paid dividends. The rookie from nearby Hawthorne led the break and fed the ball in for a cutting Donovan who put it towards the back post for Robbie Keane, but Clarence Goodson got an important touch.
Just after the hour mark, Salinas got the better of Franklin before pulling the ball back to Lenhart, but the forward collided with two Galaxy defenders while Penedo bravely came off his line to punch away.
Ten minutes earlier Victor Bernardez took down a streaking Landon Donovan from behind. While the Honduran international was shown a yellow card, the foul seemed to re-aggravate Donovan’s ankle injury.
The former Earthquake was no longer cutting or making the dashing runs with the same zest he had shown earlier in the match and it was perhaps most telling in the 89th minute.
As San Jose threw everyone forward, the Galaxy broke the other way with Donovan and Keane finding themselves in a 2 v. 1 with Earthquake substitute Walter Martinez. Donovan elected to float the ball over to Keane when it looked like he had a clear path to goal and Martinez was able to make the crucial intervention.
“If we had been a bit more clever in the last 15 minutes on the counter attack we could have scored a couple of goals.” Keane lamented in the Galaxy locker room. “They [San Jose] were gung ho to throw everybody on and get balls into the box and if we just waited half a second, a second more, had a bit more composure, we would have got a goal.”
The Galaxy had one more oppertunity to steal all three points with shouts for a penalty in stoppage time falling on deaf ears. Zardes raced into the box but went down under the challenge of Martinez. Referee Baldomero Toledo was not to be persuaded by a very angry Galaxy crowd or a furious Martinez who claimed Zardes went to ground too easily.
“I confronted him [Martinez] after,” Zardes told the media in the locker room after the game, “and said ‘hey was it a PK?’ He said, ‘yea I hit you, but it was a soft contact. As long as you make soft contact I thought it was a PK. I mean the Ref should call it right?”
As Arena said though, a draw was probably a fair result and the Galaxy still have it all to do while San Jose’s match with FC Dallas is now nothing but a farewell to a disappointing 2013.