SAN JOSE -- The Earthquakes' locker room was filled with expectation instead of despair after an inspiring 2012 season ended abruptly with a gut-wrenching MLS Cup playoff defeat to the Los Angeles Galaxy.
"We're going to be here, and we're going to be together for a long time," striker Alan Gordon said after a defeat to the Galaxy in total goals over two games. "This is not the end for us."
At least that's the plan for San Jose management as it heads into the offseason hoping to keep together most of the pieces of a team that had a club-record 72 goals and went 19-6-9 to win the regular-season championship.
The Quakes defeated Los Angeles 1-0 on Sunday in the Western Conference semifinal opener but fell hard Wednesday night 3-1 to suffer their first loss at Buck Shaw Stadium in 19 games.
In the end, the big-budget Galaxy proved to be too talented against the small-market Earthquakes. Los Angeles' three biggest stars -- David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane -- earned an average of $4 million in salary whereas the Quakes' entire payroll is south of $3 million, according to MLS Players Union data.
As the players head off to recover from a grueling season, general manager John Doyle and coach Frank Yallop will begin dealing with scouting prospects and the salary cap. Management must figure out how to reward those players who had breakout seasons without breaking the bank.
Doyle, a former U.S. national team defender, spent the past five years creating a championship-caliber team when San Jose re-entered the league as an expansion team. He plans to keep it together as best he can.
"The team is built and built to be good for years to come," he said. "It's going to be a lot of hard work and give and take from everybody" to remain a unit. "I think all our guys want to be here."
The Earthquakes performed at a premium despite having one of the league's smallest payrolls. For instance, homegrown Chris Wondolowski tied the season league record with 27 goals, winning his second Golden Boot award in three years. He earned $300,000, according to player union figures.
"The fact that their approach is not driven by going out and bringing designated players in proves there is balance in the league," MLS commissioner Don Garber said. "That's a very important thing for us to continue to be mindful of. Because if you are in a market without a designated player, you don't want to think you're not going to win."
San Jose has become a group that expects to win.
Gordon, 31, exemplified the Earthquakes' spirit this season while netting a career-best 13 goals and seven assists despite playing the past month with a sprained ankle.
All season these Quakes left their rabid fans giddy with dramatic goals in the final minutes. San Jose became known as the Goonies in reference to the 1985 movie with the line "Goonies never say die!"
The Quakes scored 13 tying or winning goals in the 82nd minute or later and almost sent Wednesday's game into overtime when Ike Opara booted a 9-yard shot over the net in second-half stoppage time.
Opara had played only 36 minutes in the previous six games as he recovered from concussion symptoms and struggled to win a starting job over center backs Victor Bernardez and Jason Hernandez.
He was on the field because Bernardez had to leave in the 12th minute after aggravating a knee injury. Also, starting forward Steven Lenhart (10 goals) played the final two weeks with a torn meniscus in his knee, and English striker Simon Dawkins (eight goals) performed with an ankle sprain.
Lenhart, who plans to undergo knee surgery in the offseason, wouldn't let the defeat Wednesday define his team.
"The thing about our team, we'll try every time," he said.
The Earthquakes tried against a superior Los Angeles team to no avail. Now they have the rest of the year to get over it.
Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/elliottalmond.