After letting the Supporter’s Shield slip through their fingers a week ago against the Colorado Rapids, the stage was set at the Home Depot Center on Sunday night, once again, for the Los Angeles Galaxy to claim the title of the best Major League Soccer team throughout the regular season in 2010. Also like the week before, the Galaxy would face a talented team who had qualified for this year’s playoffs and were eager to play spoilers of the home team’s hopes to hold the coveted Shield.
Since the return of David Beckham, the Galaxy midfield has seen many different formations and personnel. Head coach Bruce Arena seemed to have found his preferred team when he moved Landon Donovan up top as a forward while slotting Michael Stevens in at left midfield for the SuperClásico, yet after a few ineffective games as striker, the Galaxy captain had Arena tinkering once again with his starting eleven in hopes to find the perfect spot for the team’s best player.
While playing up top, Donovan found it hard to get involved in the game while in such an isolated position. Stranded with little quality service, the Galaxy number ten would have to track back to the center of the field in order to get touches on the ball, thus putting him out of position and leaving Edson Buddle disconnected up top. Donovan would go through long stretches of games with little meaningful time on the ball, and it was obvious that if the Galaxy were to confidently clasp their hands around the Shield, their playmaker would have to be placed in a position to make plays.
Arena, noticing Donovan’s dip in involvement in recent weeks, decided to position him back on the left in midfield where hopefully the dangerous winger could generate chances for his team. It is because of this return to midfield that we chronicle Donovan’s performance in this week’s edition of The Whiteboard.
Donovan’s statistics are as follows:
13 passes completed, 4 incomplete for a percentage of 77%
0 completed crosses, 3 incomplete for a percentage of 0%
4 successful tackles
1 shot on goal
1 foul drawn
1 intercepted pass
1 foul committed
1 yellow card
Whether it was the awkwardness of jumping from position to position or the nearly two straight years of football that he has been playing, it took Landon Donovan a while to get involved in Sunday night’s game. He had zero touches in the first eight minutes of the game and only had one offensive possession in the first sixteen. Dallas was doing such a great job in dominating the midfield through the early goings that Donovan had only one pass by the thirty-second minute. Clearly the visitors were not daunted by the task of playing the best MLS team at their home, as they possessed the ball and attacked early on.
This strategy paid off after only twenty-four minutes when a Galaxy turnover proved costly for the home team. Despite Franklin being the primary culprit in the defensive breakdown with his poor clearance and turnover, Landon Donovan also had his role to play in Atiba Harris’ potentially Shield-crippling goal. Instead of sprinting to cut off the service to an onside Harris, Donovan instead stood in place with his hand in the air; pleading for an off-sides call while the Hoops forward easily headed home the game’s first goal.
Despite the referees indeed making the wrong call (an off-sides Cunningham drew away two Galaxy defenders, thus interfering with the play), the Galaxy veteran should know better than to stop on a play while hoping to get a call. As he surely learned during the World Cup, where many horrible calls and non-calls went against the United States National Team, depending on a referee’s decision can be a futile effort. Instead of hopefully awaiting some whistle, Donovan should have run with Harris in an attempt to cut off the cross and prevent a goal. As it turned out, however, this mistake would prove to be a critical turning point for both the Galaxy and Donovan alike.
Instead of putting in a silent performance, which has often been associated with Donovan’s, dark-side, a switch was seemingly flipped on inside Donovan’s brain. In response to the goal, he did what every good captain throughout the world does: picked up the team on his back and carried them to a rally. After Dallas’ strike, the winger was much more active on both ends of the pitch. He came back in support on defense. He possessed the ball at midfield and made dangerous runs up field. He provided decisive service in the opponents’ box. You name it, and for the second part of the first half, Donovan did it.
The Galaxy were paid off for Donovan’s effort in the thirty-third minute when he chased down Jackson Gonçalves, who lazily shielded a ball trickling out of bounds, tackled the defender, and set up an assist to a wide open David Beckham who cleanly slotted the ball home from the outside of the box. Despite cries for a foul (even after the game) Gonçalves knew there was going to be contact and appeared to go down a bit too easily from the challenge by the much smaller Donovan, whose tackle looked tough, but fair considering the situation. This goal was solely created by Donovan and if they had not leveled before half, who knows if we’d be praising the Galaxy for hoisting The Shield or not.
In the first minute of the second half, and what the whiteboard shows as incomplete, Donovan whipped in a dangerous cross to Buddle inside the box which was defended sloppily to Juninho, who blasted a solid half-volley into the back of the net for the game’s winning goal. While rightfully not credited with the assist, Donovan’s activity in the attacking third of the field directly led to this goal that would prove to clinch The Shield.
From that point on, The Galaxy were happy to possess the ball and take what chances they were given on goal in order to grind out a crucial end-of-season win in front of their home fans. Despite being relatively quiet during most of the second half, Donovan did make a few dangerous runs up the field and set up possession in the attacking third. Donovan’s assist to Beckham, his sixteenth of the season, clinched the Silver Boot for most assists in Major League Soccer throughout the year; an impressive achievement which shows the value of a player to his team.
In a game that had personal ups and downs, Donovan once again showed that the Galaxy is at their most dangerous when he makes plays. He also showed that he much prefers to play in the midfield; a place where he can find the room to receive the ball, dart up field, and make the killer assist for a Galaxy goal. When stranded up top, the Galaxy simply lose their sharpness in attack from the midfield; a place where they need speed and vision. Donovan’s main assets are his pace, touch, and decisiveness which are meant to flourish with space up the flanks.
Who becomes Buddle’s strike partner throughout the playoffs remains cloudy and is a cause of concern for Galaxy fans. He can’t do it all by himself and requires a player next to him to can take some of the defensive pressure off of the Galaxy MVP’s shoulders. What is clear, however, is that Donovan is much better suited in midfield and that Galaxy playoff hopes ride heavily on his back.