View from the booth: Magic number is 10
Ten is the Quakes magic number right now.
There are 10 games remaining in this 2004 season and the Q's no. 10 is the man who will make the biggest impact as they go for their second straight championship.
This team may have to climb right up there on top of the shoulders of the 5-foot, 8-inch 150-pound Landon Donovan, who may have to do as much or more than he has ever done for this club - to get out of the cellar, to get on the kind of roll it will take to play consistent, championship-caliber soccer, to get their third title in four years.
Donovan proved once again on Saturday in a 2-0 win at Kansas City that one man can indeed make a difference on a field that holds 22. In an absolute must-win game, Donovan not only scored both goals, but was also dangerous from the get-go and had to be accounted for every minute of the way. TV analyst (and former Clasher) Eric Wynalda said on the national broadcast that there is no argument: Landon is the best American player, period.
Whether he likes it or not (and I don't think he minds the pressure) or whether the coaches and other players would like to admit it, this team will go where Landon takes it. To be sure, the defense needs to remain tight, Brian Ching needs to continue his emergence as a U.S. national team quality player, the midfield duo of Richard Mulrooney and Ronnie Ekelund must control the tempo of every game and Brian Mullan needs to continue being dangerous from the wing. All of the role players must play their roles, the Quakes need to get some breaks (of which there have been few this year), they need to win their home games (five of their first 10 ended in a draw), and they must put teams away when they have them down.
But in the end, the 22-year-old Landon Donovan - in what may very well be his final season in Major League Soccer - will be the man who makes it happen. He makes those around him better, he takes advantage of defensive weakness, he plays hard every night out, he creates chances for himself with a gear most players can't match, he creates chances for others with an unselfishness admirable to those in and out of his own uniform.
When Donovan has big #25, Brian Ching, with him up front, they are a lethal combination.
"They work together probably the best of any two forwards in the league," said coach Dominic Kinnear. "If you go back to last year, they were forming a great partnership before Brian got hurt. Now they are both healthy and it is a difficult task for any defender to try to defend against both of them."
After a disappointing 2-1 loss in Chicago on Wednesday night, the Quakes found themselves in Arrowhead Stadium needing three points. Nothing less would have been acceptable. With this in mind, Donovan came out and took shots, ran around defenders, and played the game at his own speed and on his own terms.
With such a demanding schedule and high expectations from both the Earthquakes and the U.S. national team, Landon admitted that he sometimes has to search a little harder for the passion, for the love of the game.
"Probably the most difficult part of my soccer career is still loving what I do," he said. "I've gone through periods where it's been difficult for me to remember that. There are various things, whether it's talking to your family or just having things happen to you or to other people, that make me realize that it's a game I love. If I keep that in my head and fresh in my mind, I think that's when I play best."
And when Donovan plays his best, it's a world-class show. It's a show that he needs to perform Wednesday in Jamaica and Saturday in San Jose against Dallas, and next week in the U.S. Open Cup and then back to MLS and the national team, and on and on and on.
It's not fair to expect a "perfect 10" from him every time he takes the field, but the Quakes #10 comes close more times than not. Should Donovan reach those prodigious expectations for most of the next ten league games, and through the playoffs, the magic number will be three, as in three Quakes titles in four years.
John Shrader has been the voice of the Earthquakes since 1996 and has worked in television and radio in the Bay Area for the past 20 years.