Top 50 MLS Cup Moments: #15 Landon Donovan

Top 50 MLS Cup Moments: #15 When He Became "Landon"

LA Galaxy 1 San Jose 2

Hernández 21'

Donovan 43'
De Rosario 96'
Did You Know?
Landon Donovan was named Best Young Player at the 2002 World Cup, the only American ever to win an individual honor at the World Cup.
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#15. When Donovan Became "Landon" (2001)

Long before the Algeria game at the 2010 World Cup. Before the final of the 2007 Gold Cup. Even before the Mexico game at the 2002 World Cup. Landon Donovan proved to be clutch.

On a crisp, sunny fall day in Columbus in 2001, the then-teenaged striker for the San Jose Earthquakes came through just when his side needed him. An instinctive, volleyed goal just seconds before halftime pulled San Jose level with the LA Galaxy in the MLS Cup final, and gave the upstart Quakes belief that they could beat their powerhouse rivals to the south.

“That was a game-changer right there,” says Frank Yallop, San Jose’s head coach then and now. “It gave us the belief we could go on. It made the halftime talk much easier. LA were good at that point and a good side. But now we felt ‘Let’s drive on and try to win this.’”

It was a moment conceived many months earlier. In the winter of 2001, Donovan, then 18, was suffering in the reserve ranks of German giants Bayer Leverkusen. After winning the Golden Ball as the best player at the 1999 U-17 World Cup, the Southern California native had signed a six-year deal with the Bundesliga side, but the chilly climes and strict character of German fussball didn’t mesh with Donovan’s laidback, almost philosophical nature.

Most importantly, he wasn’t playing.

So when the opportunity came to go on loan to the Earthquakes, he jumped at the chance. He’d be closer to home, would enjoy the sun on his back, and would play.

“I figured it was going to be a lot later rather than sooner that I was going to get a real chance to play there,” Donovan later said about his Leverkusen situation. “At 18, you don’t know a whole lot about the soccer world, but for me, I wanted to play. And there was a chance to come back and play, and I took it.”

But he didn’t play. Not at first. Yallop, then in his first year as a head coach, chose to slowly integrate his new, teenaged weapon.

“It took a while,” Yallop recalls. “We got him in and he didn’t start for first few games. But I said, ‘We got a player here, boys,’ and it turned out we had what I say is the best American player who has ever played.”

Once unleashed, of course, Donovan proved that, indeed, they did have “a player.” The sudden “it” boy of US soccer, he finished the season with 12 goals, and drove the Quakes to their first-ever MLS Cup final.

It was a surprise appearance in the final for the Quakes. They had a good season, finished second in the Western Conference, but weren’t expected to mount a challenge to the best clubs that year, namely, the Miami Fusion, the Chicago Fire, and the Galaxy. Largely made up of youngsters at the start of their careers, including Donovan, Jimmy Conrad, Dwayne De Rosario, Richard Mulrooney, Wade Barrett and Ramiro Corrales, the Quakes were considered too green.

But someone forgot to inform Donovan of that. He notched three goals in the quarterfinal series with the Columbus Crew, and another one in the semifinal-series upset of the Fusion, who had finished the regular season with the league’s best record.

“I’ve always been impressed with Landon throughout the years, but that was my real first taste,” says former Earthquakes defender Jimmy Conrad, now an analyst for FOX Soccer. “He’d been my teammate up to that point, but I think he really stepped it up in the playoffs to prove that he’s a winner.”

The Galaxy, coached by Sigi Schmid and loaded with marquee names like Cobi Jones, Paul Caligiuri, Mexican striker Luis Hernández, and Salvadoran playmaker Mauricio Cienfuegos, had a tougher time reaching the final. They needed two extratime results to beat the MetroStars and the Fire. Yet they arrived in Columbus as heavy favorites, even in their own minds.

“I remember telling [assistant coach] Ralph Perez before the game that this one was in hand and that we don’t lose finals,” says former Galaxy midfielder Peter Vagenas, seemingly forgetting that the Galaxy lost MLS Cup finals in 1996 and 1999. “We were supremely confident.”

“In the end, maybe too confident,” recalls Caligiuri. “San Jose shocked us and shocked everybody who we thought we had the star-studded team that was going to win the championship.”

At first, though, the match followed the script. The Quakes kept some possession, but the Galaxy were creating the chances, and when Hernández, the long-haired, flamboyant star of El Tri, struck a lovely goal in the 21st minute, many people believed the match was already over. The Galaxy would surely score one or two more and finally lift the MLS Cup for the first time.

Then, just before halftime, Quakes midfielder Ian Russell collected the ball on the right side. He slipped a pass toward the corner for a streaking Mulrooney, who contorted his body to serve in a tantalizing cross. The ball took one bounce and was met perfectly by Donovan.

“Richie just turned a guy and whipped it across the goal and I reacted,” Donovan said later. “Once it went off my foot … you just know it’s going in.”

“I didn’t realize what a fantastic finish it was until I saw it on a replay,” Vagenas says. “It was before Landon had become Landon.

Kevin Hartman was in the goal for the Galaxy that day. And when the ball whizzed by him into the upper, he knew he had just witnessed something special.

“I’ve always felt that you never know how young players react in those environments,” he says. “I felt the goal was very, very classy. Seemed like a goal that was maybe beyond what you’d expect of a player of Landon’s age when he scored it.”

Recalls Schmid, “I immediately thought, ‘Dang, here’s this kid getting a big goal in a big game – now he’ll be pumped up and take his game up another level,’ and that concerned me."

Righly so. Donovan didn’t go on to get the match winner. That honor went to De Rosario, who struck a golden goal in the 96th minute. But Donovan’s goal set the stage for the Quakes to complete the comeback.

And it foretold of something else. It was the moment that Landon became Landon — an athlete capable of producing something special and being referred to and recognized by one name alone. Less than a year later, he introduced himself to the larger sporting world, when he shined for the US at the 2002 World Cup.

“He can do the special thing at the required time and that’s what separates him from a lot of players,” Cobi Jones says. “That he comes through in the World Cup and in finals. Not just in regular games.”

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