With “FIRE IN HIS BELLY,” Donovan trounces Real Salt Lake

It’s easy to pick out the Galaxy fans in LA today — they’re the ones with an extra skip in their step. After a rocky start to a two leg series against Real Salt Lake, last night the LA Galaxy routed their opponents to the tune of five-nil.

The win hinged on an historic showing by Landon Donovan, who became the third in MLS history to chalk up three goals in a playoff game. Almost no one can predict when Donovan is going to turn in a performance like this — not his fans, not his teammates, not his opponents. You start to wonder if even Bruce Arena, LA Galaxy head coach, has any idea his star player is about to have himself a game.

“No,” said Arena, when asked. And “that’s completely, 100% the answer. Can’t even elaborate on that.”

”He has got some fire in his belly for sure. He is a player that is special and has been special for quite some time. And tonight you can see that he wants it bad.”
—Nick Rimando, RSL goalkeeper

The downpour began in the 10th minute, with a clever series of one-touch passes. Stefan Ishizaki fed Marcelo Sarvas at the top of the box, Sarvas popped the ball up and over to A.J. DeLaGarza, and DeLaGarza chipped it across the mouth of the goal toward Donovan’s run. If it’s possible to scoop the ball with your forehead, that’s what Landon did — and a second later, StubHub Center erupted in celebration.

It took just ten minutes for the Galaxy to tally again. Robbie Keane was toeing the offside line when Donovan squared the ball his way, and the captain was sure-footed as he knocked it into the back of the net.

Keane followed up his goal by having a hand in the next two, at 54’ and 63’, assisting both Donovan and Sarvas.

“He has got some fire in his belly for sure,” said Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando afterward. “He is a player that is special and has been special for quite some time. And tonight you can see that he wants it bad.”

The Galaxy could’ve easily settled with their 4–0 lead. But the night wouldn’t have been perfect — not quite. With just one more goal, Donovan could get that elusive hat-trick. In the 72nd minute, Keane gave him that chance:

And Donovan made the most of it. “Unbelievable performance,” said Keane, postgame. “Unbelievable. Perfectly capped off a great hat-trick.”

There’s plenty of credit to go around. With Donovan busy scoring, Robbie Keane stepped up as a playmaker. He chalked up three assists, including that gorgeous arching lob over Donovan’s head. And Stefan Ishizaki returned to the starting lineup, bringing a good measure of creativity and speed with him. Bruce Arena claimed he knew he was going to start Ishizaki “weeks ago,” but that was news to Stefan: “I think I’m on a need-to-know basis.”

But the most overlooked performance came from AJ DeLaGarza. The center was shifted over to right back, perhaps – as first noted by Sean Steffen – to stymie RSL’s build up on that side:

What’s most heartening about LA’s showing is it was truly a team effort. Perfectly timed runs linked up with perfectly placed passes, guys showed well, moved better, and there was a creativity in front of the goal we haven’t seen from this team in months. But it was an effort that all turned on one man.

“He battered me,” said Tony Beltran, the defender tasked with marking Donovan. “He was on another level. He is an incredible player and he had so much desire tonight. He is class. He is going to finish his chances. He is going to punish you and that’s what he did.”

I was eager to hear what Donovan would have to say after the game. I rushed down to the locker room, just one in a swarm of media, to hear his take. Such a big performance, in such a big game, with big stakes and playoffs on the line and the end of his career looming — if ever there was a legacy-defining moment, this seemed to be it.

To my surprise, Landon spoke of something smaller. More focused. And I really do think he said it best, so I’m going to let him say it:

“Last night and today I was thinking a lot of this through. And the reality was that we could have been standing here, and this could have been the last game ever.”

“There are a lot of things that were out of my control tonight, and one of the things that was in my control was how I played. So I wanted to make sure that when I went home tonight and looked in the mirror that I knew I gave everything regardless of the result…”

“If this was going to be the last game, I told my girlfriend today that I wanted to have fun and I want to enjoy it. If we lose, we lose, but I want to make sure I enjoy it.”

The Galaxy have a week off as they prepare for their two leg Western Conference final, against either the Seattle Sounders or FC Dallas, beginning on 11/23.