CARSON, Calif. - When Landon Donovan outran Danny Califf to a loose ball, flicked it over Pat Onstad, then tucked it away with a header last Sunday, he not only scored a great goal, he scored a very important goal for the Los Angeles Galaxy.
That 87th-minute goal rounded out the Galaxy's 3-1 victory in the first leg of the Western Conference Semifinals against the San Jose Earthquakes. Up to then, the Quakes had stolen some of the momentum away from the Galaxy, after Ricardo Clark halved the lead with his goal midway through the second half. But Donovan's goal restored the two-goal bulge, and now with a little more padding on their lead, Los Angeles can travel north with confidence this weekend.
"There's a big difference in going up to San Jose plus one versus plus two," said Galaxy head coach Steve Sampson. "I think it was important for us, especially Landon, to get that third goal."
For Donovan, the goal marked a return to form that had been missing the last couple of weeks of the regular season. His first goal on the night was more a case of being in the right place at the right time. A poor clearance rolled right to his feet, and he slotted home his shot from eight yards away into a half-empty net.
The second goal was vintage Donovan though. His combination of speed, touch and cool finishing was met with an uproar of cheers by the crowd at The Home Depot Center. Todd Dunivant, who along with Donovan has played on both sides of the California rivalry, knows the same kind of reception won't be on offer from the San Jose fans this week.
"Anytime you are wearing the rival jersey, you will be vilified. We've seen that with Landon a lot," said Dunivant. "The Quakes are playing with a lot of passion and their fans have a lot of passion. I'm expecting a big crowd and a vocal crowd. That's just part of the game."
While it's unlikely that the Galaxy will be intimidated by the environment this weekend, they won't be overconfident either. A main talking point leading into the match has been the 2003 series between the two rivals in conference semifinals, when San Jose came back from four goals down to win 5-4 on aggregate. The talk hasn't fallen on deaf ears in the Galaxy locker room either. Despite the history, the Galaxy are pretty loose heading into Saturday.
"We have to go in confident. Obviously knowing we have a two-goal lead, we can't come out too conservative," said veteran defender Chris Albright. "We have to just try and play our game, look to keep the ball out of the back of the net and we should be OK."
The Galaxy have that two-goal lead courtesy of an heroic late goal by Donovan. If they are going to survive the first round of the playoffs, they are going to have to fend off a desperate San Jose team that was the best team in MLS over the regular season. That will take an heroic team effort to accomplish.
Greg Daurio is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.