CARSON, Calif. – The LA Galaxy have conceded so much to their Northern California rivals this season, but this was the cruelest blow: A stoppage-time free kick that somehow squeezed under their wall across the top of the box and spun off goalkeeper Josh Saunders' hands into the net.
Víctor Bernárdez's 94th-minute blast delivered a 1-0 victory to the San Jose Earthquakes in Sunday's opener to the Western Conference Semifinal series, and amid Galaxy complaints that no foul had been committed prior, Saunders stoically took responsibility for the defeat.
“Basically, you're trying to see through the wall,” Saunders said. “The ball goes through the wall, deflects, takes a weird spin and you're trying ton react based on what's happening in front of you. My play was not acceptable. I'll take the blame for covering the goal and, unfortunately, that's what happened.”
The kick followed Marcelo Sarvas' foul in a a 50-50 challenge with Simon Dawkins, and the Galaxy weren't pleased with Ricardo Salazar's call. Head coach Bruce Arena said, “If that's a foul in this game, then there's 100 fouls,” and Sarvas was adamant that it “wasn’t a foul.”
“I just turned around him and blocked his pass,” the Brazilian midfielder said. “I don’t know what happened, but it doesn’t matter. It’s painful to know that it was around the goal past 90 minutes. To receive a goal in the last 90 minutes is hard.”
“I think if you ask Ricardo again,” Landon Donovan said, “he'd probably say it was a mistake, and he shouldn't have called it. But we still had a chance to get our wall together and do a better job, and those kind of plays happen. Sometimes you don't get calls for you, and you've got to do a good job with the resulting free kicks, and we didn't.”
Bernárdez's kick, from about 31 yards, was low and ought to have been stopped by the wall, but the Earthquakes' uncanny ability to score late goals no matter the circumstances – they now have 10 in stoppage time this season, six of them winners – provided an advantage halfway through the home-and-home series.
“I think I jumped, and I think I nicked it,” defender Omar Gonzalez said. “I don't know if it blinded Josh. It might have deflected off me, and I think that changed its course a little bit and kind of messed up Josh.”
Saunders called it “one of those things” and said it “took a weird spin, got caught underneath me, and it was behind me before I knew it. ... It's tough, but we have another game, and you've got to bounce back from it. It shows true character if you can come back and win [Wednesday's second leg], especially for myself, to put a good performance on the field.”
Said Donovan: “Josh will be fine. ... I think Josh is going to have a really good game on Wednesday and give us a chance to win.”