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Arena, Donovan - the great redeemers

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Ives Galarcep

Ives Galarcep is a 14-year veteran of the American soccer beat. He created and operates the popular American soccer blog, Soccer By Ives, which was voted Best American Soccer Blog by US Soccer in 2008, 2009, and 2010. Ives was also voted Best Football Writer by SoccerLens in 2010. 
 

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Bruce Arena and Landon Donovan have experienced their share of joyous triumphs together during their lengthy tenure as coach and player. From the number of important victories with the U.S. national team, to their many triumphs in the past three seasons with the Los Angeles Galaxy.

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All that history aside, there may not have been a sweeter victory for them to share than Sunday night’s MLS Cup Final victory over the Houston Dynamo. It marked the third MLS championship for each of them, but the redemption both men gained in securing that title is what has to make it stand out from the rest.

Consider that at this time two years ago, Landon Donovan could be seen sulking in his locker after the 2009 MLS Cup Final loss to Real Salt Lake. Having just missed a penalty kick in the decisive shootout, Donovan was clearly deflated and left wondering how things could have gone so wrong for a Galaxy team that seemed destined to lift a trophy.

Four years ago at this time, Arena wasn’t competing for a title. He was looking for a job after being fired in surprising fashion by the New York Red Bulls after just one and a half seasons. History will show Arena ‘resigned’ from the Red Bulls, but it has long since been revealed that he was forced out, given the option of taking a payoff and quitting rather than simply being fired.

Those moments served as rock bottom for two men who have enjoyed so much success in their careers, and provided the impetus for a journey that led them both to the Home Depot Center on Sunday night.

Donovan found himself with another chance to score a title-winning goal, and he did just that on Sunday, taking a beautiful Robbie Keane pass and slotting it home for the only goal the Galaxy needed, and the fourth MLS Cup goal of his career (a record).

Even before the goal, Donovan was a menace for the Dynamo defense to handle, looking like the dangerous attacking predator who once helped the 2003 San Jose Earthquakes and 2005 Los Angeles Galaxy teams win titles.

Arena’s triumph was the culmination of three years of reconstructing the Galaxy from laughing stock to trophy-winning powerhouse. It is easy to forget that Arena inherited a Galaxy team with a weak roster and with Beckham looking like a wasted signing. All he did was proceed to build a team that has now reached two MLS Cup finals (winning one), won two Supporters Shields and reached the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League.

Arena won’t bother with throwing a public jab at his former employers in New York, but he has made clear in comments in recent months and years that he takes pride in having made the Red Bulls look foolish for firing him. It must be even sweeter to lift his first MLS Cup trophy since 1997 (a span that included eight years away from MLS spent coaching the national team) while the Red Bulls remain a misguided and overpriced mess.

Sunday’s MLS Cup final victory isn’t just about redemption, it is also about solidifying two of the strongest legacies in the league’s 15-year history. The win secures Arena’s place as the best head coach in league history, while Donovan’s MVP performance secures his standing as the best player in MLS history.

The scary part is that Arena and Donovan’s Galaxy aren’t finished. While there may be some player departures to deal with, the Galaxy have already expressed a commitment to revamping the roster and will remain a strong team in 2012.

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Redemption won’t be the major motivator going forward for Arena and Donovan after Sunday’s championship. Instead, the chance to make more history will be the new motivation. Once they have had a chance to enjoy Sunday’s triumph, and some time off, Arena and Donovan can start preparing for a run at the CONCACAF Champions League title. Something no MLS team has ever won.

That sounds like just the right challenge for two men who just checked off another impressive accomplishment on their things-to-do list, and after seeing them both rebound from some difficult moments in their careers to share a championship on Sunday, it would be tough to bet against them.

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