By Ridge Mahoney
So, does anyone else want to ponder that perhaps Landon Donovan is done? A second straight virtuoso performance swept the Galaxy to another playoff romp, this one a 3-0 dismantling of Seattle at Home Depot Center Sunday night in the Western Conference final first leg. The Galaxy has been shining brightly during this playoff run and while Robbie Keane and Mike Magee are the scoring stars, and Christian Wilhelmsson has increased his magnitude with every game, nobody has matched Donovan for overall attacking brilliance.
The league’s all-time playoff scorer with 21 goals didn’t hit the net Sunday nor in the 3-1 thumping of San Jose Wednesday night in the conference semis, but while racking up three assists he simply terrorized two very good opposing teams by scything past tacklers on the dribble and stitching together mesmerizing combinations with precise flicks and exquisite touches.
When he’s on his game, on and off the ball Donovan's nearly impossible to contain. The changes of direction and pace, staples of Donovan’s game since his MLS rookie season of 2001, at times have been lacking this season. During interviews two weeks ago he talked about fatigue, and burnout, and how much he missed Everton, and maybe soon wrapping up his career.
This came from Landon Donovan, the insightful, introspective man. Cometh playoff crunch time, cometh Landon Donovan, the incredible, in-form player.
At kickoff of the semifinal second leg, the Quakes were holding a 1-0 lead from a stoppage-time goal at HDC. Forty minutes later, after a pair of goals Keane and one by Magee and being overrun by some scorching play from Donovan, they were down, 3-0, on the night and 3-1 on aggregate. Their goal in the second half narrowed the overall margin but the Galaxy held out to take the series, 3-2.
Sunday night the Sounders traded punches with the Galaxy through a scoreless 45 minutes and would have felt pretty good about a 0-0 halftime score if they had attained it. Instead, after a crisp series of passes in stoppage time Donovan ran down a ball skimming to the byline and twisted his body acrobatically to clip a cross back across goal. As he tumbled out of bounds the ball floated to the back post, where Keane leaped to head L.A. into a 1-0 lead. Two more goals in the second half sent the Galaxy to CenturyLink Field with a 3-0 lead.
Thus did the game and series turn on an amazing display of quickness and balance and skill, since Donovan’s first touch had knocked it the ball a bit too hard and he had to chase it from behind. At the point he raced to keep the ball in play, most players would trapped it on the line, but he contorted his body to scoop a first-time cross with his right foot in the opposite direction the ball was traveling.
He didn’t show up on the stat sheet for either second-half goal, though Keane’s tap-in for No. 3 stemmed from a deflected Donovan shot that Wilhelmsson chest-trapped and directed on frame. Donovan’s speed and directness overwhelmed the back line of the Sounders, which created a reasonable number of opportunities with their five-man midfield but couldn’t handle the task defensively.
While Wilhelmsson ostensibly played right midfield, he floated often into the middle, which opened up space on the right flank for Sean Franklin. They took turns running at and past stand-in Seattle left back Zach Scott and left mid Alex Caskey, who couldn’t figure out whether to chase or stay put and keep an eye on David Beckham, who found a lot of room in the middle. As they and their teammates dithered, Keane and Donovan cut them apart.
It’s clichéd to regard Donovan as a tortured artist, a term usually reserved for painters, sculptors and hell-bent entertainers. But in his way, he is. Periodically throughout his career he’s talked publicly of much deeper topics than Concacaf qualifying or the joys of playing with Keane and Becks. He’s been through a divorce, dealt with painfully complex father issues, read postings of "mama’s boy" and “Landycakes” and far worse. He’s undergone therapy.
Very few professional players take private angst public while they are still playing. Doubts are for wimps. If anything, we are inundated by the opposite: brash braggadacio pouring forth, a la Deion Sanders or Zlatan Ibrahimovic, about how great it is to be great. If there’s a spectacular fall, the demons that drive an athlete to drink or drugs are often discussed upon release from a substance-abuse clinic, when the world already knows what has happened and has to be told why and how.
Fortunately for him and us, Donovan hasn’t set out on self-destruction. Self-analysis, when it isn’t all Dom Perignon and bright-red balloons, isn’t what the world necessarily wants, but with him, that’s what it gets, along with some truly scintillating play.