May 12, 2012
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CARSON, Calif. - It was inevitable that this year's MLS Cup would be all about David Beckham. His presence alone at the Home Depot Center on Sunday was enough to send fans, league officials, journalists and photographers into a tizzy. It was as if there was no one else on the field, as if no one else mattered. Five years after Beckham came to our shores to spread the gospel of soccer, this final was to be his crowning achievement. In truth, it was a personal victory for another player.
That player is Beckham's Los Angeles Galaxy teammate Landon Donovan. While Beckham was looking for a Hollywood ending to cement his legacy a few years after his commitment to the Galaxy had come into question, Donovan is no stranger to winning in Major League Soccer. The Galaxy's 1-0 victory over the Houston Dynamo to win MLS Cup put Donovan forever in the pantheon of this country's greatest soccer players. For the 29-year-old midfielder, scoring the game-winner and lifting the trophy capped a great season and put an end to a personal dry spell dating back six years.
Donovan had previously won three MLS Cups: with the San Jose Earthquakes in 2001 and '03 and with the Galaxy in 2005. Since then, he had not lifted any silverware. He'd come close in 2009, losing in the final when the Galaxy lost to Real Salt Lake in a shootout. The Galaxy also missed out on the playoffs for three straight seasons with the future Hall of Famer in the lineup during a rough patch that ranks among the worst in the team's history.
"I have been thinking about this game for the past month," Donovan said on the eve of Sunday's final. "This game has been my single focus."
Donovan had become a household name at the 2010 World Cup when his last-gasp goal against Algeria gave the U.S. a 1-0 win, putting the Americans ahead of England in group play and into the knockout round. The goal now ranks as one of the most exciting sports moments ever and for the first time gave Americans a reason to rally around soccer, a sport this country has traditionally viewed with skepticism. Branded a foreign game by naysayers who argued it had little appeal because it lacked scoring, Donovan gave Americans the chance to celebrate during a World Cup for the first time and thrust the sport into the mainstream.
Although most remember Donovan in a U.S. jersey (he is the national team's all-time leading scorer), it has been his time with the Galaxy that will ultimately mark his legacy. His 10 seasons in MLS have made the league stronger, giving fans an American icon at a time when many foreign players - many of whom failed miserably - have flocked here in the hope of making an easy buck.
Donovan's run for the title began at the end of last season. After the World Cup, Donovan returned to the Galaxy and got within a game of the MLS Cup, but the team lost to FC Dallas in the Western Conference final. With the MLS season over prematurely, Donovan refused an offer to return to Everton in England's Premier League (a stint that had proved extremely successful the previous season) in a winter loan deal so he could rest after a nonstop 12 months. He used the winter to rest and returned to the Galaxy in top form last March.
The irony in all this is that Beckham's commitment to the Galaxy was once cast into doubt by Donovan himself. The Galaxy captain was perhaps too candid a few years back when he questioned whether Beckham cared about the team. Donovan and Beckham have patched things up, and their chemistry is one reason the Galaxy had the best regular-season record in 2011 and got to the final.
In an interview last month with Sports Illustrated, Tim Leiweke, president of AEG, which owns the Galaxy, said: "Landon and David figured out they didn't have to be best friends. When they get on the pitch, their chemistry is good right now."
Despite playing most of the season as a midfielder on the wings rather than as a striker in front of the goal, Donovan scored 12 goals in the regular season - fifth overall - and is regarded by most as the league's most talented player. While Beckham may very well have played his last MLS game, Donovan will in all likelihood be here. For Donovan, it is definitely not the end. He will be back in 2012 looking to win yet another title - with or without Beckham by his side.
Clemente Lisi writes a weekly soccer column for RealClearSports, appearing every Monday.