SAN JOSE — Call the morgue. The Earthquakes’ chances of advancing to the MLS Cup playoffs all but ended on a sultry early autumn evening Wednesday at Avaya Stadium.
Boy did they reach the bottom in a god-awful 4-1 defeat to the Chicago Fire in front of an announced crowd of 17,256 fans — the first time the team has not sold all 18,000 seats since the stadium opened three years ago.
By the way, fewer than the announced crowd showed up for this stinker.
The Quakes (11-14-6, 39 points) didn’t just say goodby to a seven-game home unbeaten streak. They stumbled into irrelevancy after a season with a midseason coaching change and the signing of a slew of foreign talent.
Chris Leitch replaced the fired Dominic Kinnear in June to remold a group that had looked strong during the first four months. His rookie season as coach won’t go over well with San Jose supporters after another embarrassing defeat. The Earthquakes have gone from playoff contenders to practice fodder after getting outscored 12-2 in their past four games to tumble to eighth place in the Western Conference.
Chris Wondolowski scored his team-leading 12th goal of the season in the 86th minute. It had little bearing on the result but allowed the Danville native to move into a third-place tie with Jaime Moreno on the all-time career scoring list with 133 goals.
Wondolowski’s goal came off Valeri Qazaishivill’s maiden MLS assist.
Too little. Way, way too late.
San Jose had no margin of error reach the playoffs for the first time since 2012. But it seemed the team had a big advantage ending the season with three of the final four games at home, including Saturday against the Portland Timbers.
But that changed dramatically in a horrible first half that the Fire (15-10-6, 51 points) dominated. If not for San Jose goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell’s six saves it could have been much worse.
But that was little reassurance for San Jose, whose defensive confusion continued after goals by
Djordje Mihalovic (14th minute) and Luis Solignac (40th).
It only got worse at the start of the second half when Nemanja Nikolic got his 19th goal of the season for a Fire single-season record. In the 65th minute, the Hungarian international tied Portland’s Diego Valeri in the Golden Boot race with his 20th goal.
Leitch had a rare deep lineup with no suspensions and only midfielder Fatai Alashe out with a quadriceps muscle strain.
But nothing worked as the Fire controlled the midfield with veteran Dax McCarty finding seams through the Quakes’ spine.
It probably was over after Mihalovic got his first MLS goal off pass from Solignac. The teenager stayed onside in the area after Solignac got behind the defense to find his teammate open.
It was Solignac’s turn in the 40th minute as the Argentine striker got his seventh goal of the year on a sharp cross from Michael de Leeuw.
Any thoughts of a rally ended within the first two minutes of the second half. Nikolic, who grew up in Serbia, easily scored on a quick attack that made San Jose’s once-steady defense look anemic.
Chicago clinched a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with the victory.
The Earthquakes almost certainly must win the final three games — including a tough road venture at first-place Vancouver.
They still have the slightest of chances.
Just don’t count on it for a team that has reached the playoffs only two times since re-entering the league in 2008.
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