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Donovan is the Man
December 29th, 2003 12:17PM

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By all accounts, Landon Donovan's performance at MLS Cup 2003 wasn't his best game. But as he did throughout the playoffs, the 21-year-old San Jose Earthquakes star dominated.

The coach and the star both had their hands full at their latest moment of glory.

When they stepped onto a stage for the MLS Cup 2003 postgame press conference, Coach Frank Yallop brought along his young son, Jack. Landon Donovan cradled the bottle of champagne from which he'd been taking healthy belts since he and his teammates left the field with a 4-2 victory over an unlucky and unready Chicago Fire.

MLS officials may not have wanted their stellar young player glistening in the spotlight drenched with champagne, inside and out. Yet in the same year he turned 21, the legal drinking age in California, he had come of age as a player.

''When he plays well, we play well,'' said Yallop, who had made it clear when he took the Quakes' job in 2001 that Donovan was to be his upon signing with MLS. ''He needs a supporting cast and let's be honest, they set him up to succeed. So you've got to hand it to our guys. But he makes the difference.''

Head-to-head, glaring were the differences between Donovan and Fire striker Ante Razov. Donovan took two of San Jose's 11 shots and both cleanly beat Chicago keeper Zach Thornton. Razov, weakened by a bout with the flu, shot eight times and four were on target, but none - including a pedestrian penalty kick - got past Pat Onstad, whose eight saves denied Chicago when it did hit the target.

''Landon gets two chances and he scores two goals,'' said Quakes defender Eddie Robinson. ''That's something we've been able to count on down the stretch. He's been great for us.''

Chicago scored just one goal in 22 attempts, a bad-angle blast from DaMarcus Beasley that whistled between Onstad and the near post. Substitute defender Chris Roner headed into his own net for the other Fire score.

That was it. Despite Damani Ralph and Andy Williams and Beasley and Razov breaking through repeatedly, the Fire trailed from the sixth minute and never caught up.

''It was a game of chances,'' said Yallop. ''We took ours, they missed theirs. That's why Landon's a real quality player.''

By halftime, the outplayed Quakes had been outshot, 10-5, yet led, 2-0, on a blistering Ronnie Ekelund free kick and Donovan's crisp left-footed finish of a Jamil Walker through ball.

When central defender Jim Curtin committed to a tackle in midfield, Walker brushed past him. When the Fire back line hesitated to trap Donovan offside, he sailed into space behind Carlos Bocanegra and fired low past Thornton.

''We were getting slaughtered,'' said Donovan. ''We weren't playing well at all yet we're up, two-zero. But that's soccer.''

Moments after the Fire cut the lead to 2-1 on Beasley's bolt, Donovan's sprint to the far post helped open up space for Richard Mulrooney to chase down a long ball from Brian Mullan and drill it low past Thornton.

''I took a touch and like any smart guy, you look for Landon in front of the goal because he can finish anything,'' said Mulrooney, who in five MLS seasons had not scored in the playoffs. ''He was marked. They did a good job, so I took another touch. I've been known to put a few in the back of the net, and thankfully I was able to find the back of the net today. He's started to grow up. He already is a star of American soccer but he's starting to show it even more. You can't expect him to do it every day because he is still that young. When I was his age, I was still in college.''

After Roner's oggie again made it a one-goal game at 3-2 and he had clumsily fouled Ralph, Onstad snared Razov's low penalty of decent direction but insufficient power.

Onstad had snuffed the Fire's best chance to tie the game. Fourteen minutes later, Donovan iced the champagne by befuddling Curtin with a cutback run to tuck away a near-post cross from Dwayne DeRosario for the clincher.

''Landon is a great player when he turns it on,'' said Ekelund, a veteran of European play whose savvy often helped steady a team whetted by pace and pressure. ''He's unstoppable. He made some great runs and great goals here today.''

LEADERSHIP ROLE. This was the season during which Donovan and the Quakes refused to be defused by anything: not by fatigue, injuries, bad form, strange luck, nor by rumors of Yallop leaving to coach Canada.

This was also the season Donovan grew out of the occasional sulks and dark spells that rendered him nearly invisible. He paired up front at different times with Brian Ching, Manny Lagos, Rodrigo Faria, Walker, Mullan and DeRosario and was deployed once in midfield. His performances wavered more than did his intensity.

Mulrooney knows Donovan about as well as any one on the Quakes. They often room together on the road,

''Landon not only stepped up but he really wanted it,'' said Mulrooney not only of the final but of the entire season. ''In 2001, we came on. He showed it some of the time but he wasn't always in the spotlight.''

Donovan had been an exciting rookie and league poster boy upon leaving German club Bayer Leverkusen and sparking the Quakes' championship run in 2001. He returned from the 2002 World Cup exhausted and bruised, and crumbled under a burden of chat shows and personal appearances as San Jose stumbled in the first round of the playoffs.

''I didn't have to step up into a leadership role,'' Donovan said of his first two seasons. ''I just had to be there and help out where I could. But this year I had to be more of the man.''

The man led San Jose with 12 goals and six assists in only 21 regular-season games. He missed nearly a month of MLS action playing for the U.S. at the Confederations Cup and Gold Cup but handled more adroitly the transitions between MLS and USA.

''The thing that makes him so good and why he does very well at both levels, club and country, is the fact he does very well with his opportunities,'' said Fire captain Chris Armas. ''He doesn't need so many chances to put it in the net.

''You won't find anyone more composed closer to goal. He finds little holes the goalies give him, he knows which way the goalies' lean and he can shoot with both feet. Off the ball he makes great runs. For me, around the goal he's one of the best finishers.''

Donovan scored four times and registered two assists in the playoffs, playing a direct role in one-half of the Quakes' 12 postseason goals. He rode the momentum of an amazing transformation, starting with a five-goal burst that stunned Los Angeles in the conference semifinals and continuing with a 3-2 comeback triumph over Kansas City won with a Donovan strike in sudden-death.

''Landon has a knack of knowing when it really matters,'' said Yallop. ''Is that a sense of timing or a really good player? I don't know what it is but he has it: 2001 playoff run, playoff run this year, 2002 World Cup, we could go on and on and on. For the big games he'd done it.''

PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT. Topping the Western Conference with a 14-7-9 record only magnified a pathetic finish to the regular season in which San Jose failed to win in four games and scored only one goal.

To Donovan, all the playoff omens spelled disaster. He'd scored six goals in the four games leading up to that bleak quartet and from there had been blanked.

''Those four games were just awful,'' said Donovan of a 2-0 home loss to the MetroStars, a 0-0 tie in Colorado, a 3-0 humiliation by the Galaxy at the Home Depot Center, and a 1-1 tie with Los Angeles at home in the season finale. ''I remember going to practice every day, thinking, 'What is it?' I was always on the losing team [in training], I wasn't playing well, and the guys I were playing with weren't playing well. It bummed me out. It really did. We weren't clicking and when things go bad everybody tries to be a hero and step up and score and do everything instead of just doing their job.''

It reminded Donovan of 2002. San Jose lost a pair of fierce, season-ending games to the Galaxy, 1-0. Four days later, a drained defending champion lost its playoff opener at home to the Crew, and a few days after that fell in Columbus. Season over.

''Last year, there was a feeling of, 'That's not a better team than us. Why are we losing that game?''' he recalled.

The 2003 playoffs started grimly with a 2-0 loss to the Galaxy in Carson. Yet in that defeat Donovan had detected a few faint embers of spirit, which were fanned by a brisk training session the day before the return match at Spartan Stadium.

''That day we finally started to play well,'' he said. ''We scored some nice goals, and I figured well, maybe, we had come out of it.''

Out of it is where the Quakes thought they were after L.A. jumped in front, 2-0, but five straight goals - triggered by a Jeff Agoos free kick - propelled them into the conference final against Kansas City. Donovan broke away with Walker to score the second goal and with a perfect through ball set up Faria for the OT winner.

''I didn't really believe we could do it,'' said Donovan. ''I thought the season was over. We went from being a team that had absolutely no confidence and was playing as poorly as any team in the league to a team that in one game switched everything around and turned into the best team in the league.''

Kansas City made the Quakes prove it by twice taking one-goal leads they erased. Deep into overtime, Ekelund intercepted an attempted clearance and headed it a few yards sideways to Donovan, who immediately knocked it back and darted for goal.

SHIRTLESS IN SAN JOSE. When Ekelund played a precise through ball back to him as he glided into the box, Donovan gently nudged it with his first touch and then buried it low into the net. He sprinted straight for the corner, shirtless and screaming, riding on the roars of 16,108 awestruck fans.

In the stands danced a large placard proclaiming, ''We Believe.'' In his third pro season Donovan had discerned what many professionals never learn.

''Talent doesn't do as much as people think,'' he said. ''It's more about will, especially in a team sport. In tennis, maybe it's talent. But soccer is a team sport. There's a reason Goose [Jeff Agoos] has five [championship] rings. There's a reason Frank [Yallop] has been so good. You can't doubt that.''

Donovan didn't dominate the final. San Jose couldn't hold the ball much and so relied on quick, sharp counterattacks. Donovan worked hard, made good use of most of his touches, supported and prompted his teammates, and unsheathed the rapier when it was needed.

''The funny thing is, maybe Landon didn't play his best game today,'' said Mulrooney, ''but he showed up at the right times and scored the goals that needed to be scored.''

by Soccer America Senior Editor Ridge Mahoney



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