Donovan's brilliance steals show yet again
Captain fantastic: Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder Landon Donovan has the habit of coming up huge in important spots. (Photo by Fernando Moises Donado/FOXSoccer.com)
It was LA’s three stars, apropos for Major League Soccer’s most star-studded team. David Beckham flicked on for Robbie Keane, who put Landon Donovan through, the captain using the outside of his foot to chip the ball over Tally Hall for the match’s only goal, the one that claimed the 2011 MLS Cup.
For a moment the ball looked destined to go wide, which would have been par for the course on the night. After a few initial, foul-filled minutes after the opening whistle, Los Angeles had controlled the match, but saw their dominance go for naught after the teams reached half time scoreless. Despite continuously beating Houston down the flanks, LA was left to have their best chances go unrewarded, twice having perfect balls for Adam Cristman headed past goal.
Of course it would be Donovan who’d break through. Pushed forward from midfield after Cristman came off for Chad Birchall, Donovan was in the perfect spot to win his fourth MLS Cup (second with the Galaxy), a victory secured as the LA captain’s chipped ball grabbed the soggy Home Depot Center turf, spun back toward goal, crossing the line a full two feet from the far post.
For all LA’s dominance, Donovan’s shot was the first time Tally Hall’d been seriously questioned. While Houston had kept Galaxy goalkeeper Josh Saunders honest, Hall had seen LA’s best chances go into touch. When LA beat Jermaine Taylor on the left, Houston found a way to concede only a corner. When the Galaxy collapsed the defense to give Mike Magee and Todd Dunivant chances down the left, crosses were blocked to left to roll through the six, to be played out at the far post.
And that’s what made Landon Donovan’s chance different. For all their control of the ball, their dominating even facet of the match, Houston was always able to force the Galaxy to go outside in. It was only when LA hit at the heart of the Houston defense – when Keane found room in the space vacated by Bobby Boswell – only then was the match decided.
And only after it was could we see: an MLS Cup final that had been defined in terms of the Galaxy’s legacy from the moment the teams confirmed their places two weeks ago, played as an analogy for the whole season.
Perhaps LA wasn’t the clear favorite in March, but after only a few weeks, they were at the top of the league, while we were given seven months to conceive of reasons why Real Salt Lake, the Seattle Sounders, FC Dallas, or the New York Red Bulls would ever reach their full potential.
Or, as we’d tried to imagine – tried to make ourselves believe for the sake of the sake – Houston could rekindle the form that’s won the Dynamo two MLS Cups, that’s won many in their organization four titles.
But Houston didn’t offer much. They missed their best play. The absence of Brad Davis, injured two weeks ago in the Eastern Conference final, was glaring from the start. Corey Ashe offered little going forward on the left side of midfield, while Jermaine Taylor filled in at left back with the positional awareness of a center half. After a first half of seeing their defense consistently turned, Houston played the second half like a team holding the inevitable at arm’s length.
One game, one goal: It took 4 years for LA Galaxy midfielder David Beckham to lift his first MLS Cup trophy (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images).
If Houston’s performance was meek, Los Angeles deserves some of the credit, credit which starts with their three biggest stars.
As Los Angeles was presented with opportunities wide throughout the first half, it was often Robbie Keane who served as the fulcrum in attack, making the right decisions as LA switched play from their right to left flanks. Dropping off his line to take the ball, perfectly reading Mike Magee’s runs, Keane showed the feel of a player who had more than four regular season matches worth of time in his new home.
“I remember the first day (Keane) got here,” Donovan reflected, post-match. “Watching him pass the ball, I was really impressed. I didn’t realize what a good passer he was. And the pass he gave me for the goal was fantastic. Absolutely world class.”
David Beckham, revealed by Donovan after the match to have played potentially his final MLS match with a torn hamstring that kept him from training all week, was the night’s best midfielder, delivering multiple trademark crosses and upping his physicality as the match played out. Laugh if you want at the concept of a second assist, but it is romantically appropriate that the now out-of-contract star had an official role in the goal that could define his MLS legacy.
But while the night was supposed to make or break Beckham’s MLS career, it ultimately served as another chapter for Donovan. Plagued by his own injuries for much of the year, the game’s Most Valuable Player (the second time he’s won the honor) added to his record MLS Cup finals goal total: four, the same number of championships Donovan’s won between LA and San Jose.
“Landon was the MVP tonight,” Beckham - himself a strong MVP candidate - offered unprompted after the match. “He deserved to score that goal.
"He won us the match. We’re lucky to have a player like him.”
As he turned to the corner, having just seen his game winner cross the line, Donovan slid on his knees to accept the roar of the record 30,218 people at Home Depot Center. As the team’s captain – the player that’s become synonymous with the franchise he joined six years ago – it was as much as he deserved.
“The actual goal doesn’t mean a whole lot to me,” he said, when asked to put the goal in the context of his career. “I, for the last month, have been, like the rest of these guys, so determined to win, and I didn’t care who scored, I didn’t care if it was an own goal, I just wanted the ball to go in."
On a team defined by its stars, it was only appropriate that the one at its center was allowed to shine at the team’s most triumphant moment.