CARSON, Calif.—With Landon Donovan back on the field contributing to a LA Galaxy playoff win, it might have properly seemed like old times.
However, that's far too simple of a description for his performance in Wednesday's 3-1 victory over Knockout Round guest Real Salt Lake, the teams' opener in the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs. This was not quite your older brother's Landon Donovan, so to speak. This was the guy who ended his retirement back in September to help LA claim another league crown.
Sure, in some ways, it was vintage Donovan: The guy who has racked up 23 goals in 41 career playoff appearances and celebrated four of his six MLS Cup triumphs with the Galaxy remained visible at times; his run down the right and subsequent cross directly led to the home side's opening strike on Wednesday.
By helping to set up Alan Gordon's icebreaker in the 14th minute, the 34-year-old established a new MLS record with his 15th playoff assist. He perhaps should have earned another after stealing the ball from an RSL defender to earn a corner kick 10 minutes later, but Gordon could only nudge Donovan's resulting serve wide from the doorstep.
And yet, those types of incidents were not the ones that defined Donovan's outing on this night. According to the Galaxy star, that makes perfect sense.
"When you see the players we have on the field, I don't have to always contribute on the score sheet," Donovan said, postgame. "At this point in my life, winning feels best, so whatever I have to do to make that happen is what I want to do."
On Wednesday, that's exactly what Donovan did. He completed right about 90 percent of his run-of-play passes, with some driving the attack forward and as many expertly working possession near midfield. From the first to the 51st minute, when LA built the score line that would seal their advancement, he missed on just one of 24 passes.
Donovan's defensive work tonight has been phenomenal. #LAvRSL— Matthew Doyle (@MLSAnalyst) October 27, 2016
He also pitched in off the ball with a few defensive stops through long hustle runs that squelched dangerous RSL rushes at key moments in the game. A couple times, his recovery plays took the wing wheels right out from under a surprised Joao Plata, Real's leading offensive light.
"I watched a lot of tape this week and he said publicly that he wants to hang out and counter attack," Donovan said. "We knew if the ball turned over that he was going to be waiting. That was in my head all night.
"I wanted to make sure that if the ball did turn over that I was in a good spot to help … You know, some of those runs might put me back a few weeks."
All jokes aside, it's certainly true that Donovan is not the 90-minute speed demon of his heyday – at least not so soon after coming out of retirement. Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena says that's just fine, because the all-time MLS top scorer can now fill in the blanks in the team's play.
"We progressed Landon in a way that he's ready to play regular minutes," Arena said. "As he got fitter and sharper, you could see that his intelligence on the field, his ability to communicate, his technical ability, is something that's unique that we haven't had. He really complements the group.
"He's not the same player he was 10 years ago, but he's still pretty damn good player. Being able to add him to the group is going to help us be a better team."
What has obviously carried over from the main stage of Donovan's playing career is a burning fire to compete. But, as with his playing style, it's not quite the same as before.
"It feels pretty similar [coming back two years after his last MLS Playoff game], but when you get away for a while, you get perspective that's different," Donovan told MLSsoccer.com.
"I understand very clearly what it takes to win in these games. Before, you're kind of caught in the moment and it just feels like the next game, but now I have more of a big picture mentality and I think that's helpful.
This also stands to reason. Not only is Donovan a little older and wiser, but the precise reason he came back was to help the Galaxy raise MLS Cup on December 10. After Wednesday night's win, he cautiously believes that ambition is on course.
"[Giovani dos Santos] was excellent, but relatively quiet on the score sheet," Donovan said. "Robbie Keane is still getting back to fitness. Imagine when all those pieces come together. We're happy where we are tonight and we'll only get better.
"It's just one game," he added. "We're satisfied with the way we played, but Colorado's another level and we know that."