San Jose sparkles in grand finale
CARSON, Calif. -- Capped off by the hero image of Landon Donovan hoisting the Alan I. Rothenberg and Honda MVP trophies above his head, Major League Soccer has plenty to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. It finally got the MLS Cup it has always wanted.
Forget for a moment that the two best teams in the regular season met under cloudless skies playing in the new soccer cathedral that is the Home Depot Center. That would have meant nothing if an ugly match ensued, with both teams lying back on defense waiting for the other to make a mistake, as is usually the case on the grandest of stages.
Yet, unlike last year's final that saw Los Angeles and New England play 113 minutes of mostly yawn-inspiring soccer, San Jose and Chicago displayed more skill and all-out attacking than anyone could have hoped for on Sunday in a match that saw the Earthquakes triumph 4-2 for their second MLS Cup title in three years.
"That's what you want out of a final," said a champagne bottle-toting Donovan, who now has scored 10 goals in 12 playoff games over his three-year career in MLS.
There were goals. Lots of them. An MLS record total, in fact. The tallies came every which way, as well, whether it was off a free kick, a breakaway, an own goal, and, practically, a kick off. Add in that two came from the league's Golden Boy, and you have a dream result for the league.
"As a defender, it felt like an All-Star game," said an exhausted Jeff Agoos, who won his fifth MLS Cup with the victory. "It was one of the most exciting things I've been a part of."
That's not to say the match was wide-open and mistake-laden, either. Strong defensive performances were put in by players on both sides, most notably San Jose. The team got solid efforts from goalkeeper Pat Onstad, particularly in the first half when Chicago carried the play despite the score, and the central defense pairing of Eddie Robinson and Troy Dayak, who kept Ante Razov in check.
"Ante is not going to run by players, so he's always going to look for space to get his shot off," said assistant coach Dominic Kinnear. "And Troy and Eddie knew that. Ante had his chances, but the one-on-one battles with him went our way."
Razov played out of character, miffing on several shots, including two free kicks outside of the area that were weakly hit at Onstad.
Chicago out-shot San Jose 22-11 with a 10-8 advantage of shots on goal, but weren't able to finish on several breakaways. In the first half alone, DaMarcus Beasley and Damani Ralph snuck in behind the defense to no avail.
"We got slaughtered in the first half," admitted Donovan, "and we were up two-to-nothing."
The sign in San Jose's locker room:
Enjoy the Game.
We are better than them.
You give everything.
We outfought L.A. and Kansas
It's all about finishing, though, which San Jose did remarkably well. It's also a vital reason why San Jose is a worthy champion. Frank Yallop's side showed a bit more imagination and creativity on the attack than Chicago throughout the afternoon, and was able to come through whenever it needed to.
It was apparent right off the bat when Earthquakes' striker Jamil Walker earned a free kick from 25 yards out.
Known for his curling, left-footed strikes on dead balls, Agoos faked out each player in Chicago's five-man wall, as well as the 27,000 fans at the HDC, by feinting a kick. His trickery allowed just enough room on the right side of the wall for teammate Ronnie Ekelund to place a perfectly-struck ball into the top corner of the net.
"I knew that Thornton would move to the middle (on a fake)," said Agoos. "It caught them off guard when Ronnie took it, and he hit it beautifully."
It gave San Jose a 1-0 lead five minutes into the match, and helped dictate the game's pace and style.
Though Chicago pulled itself back into the match with two quick strikes in the second half to make the score 3-2, the team's hopes were diminished greatly. Especially, when Onstad saved Razov's penalty kick in the 57th minute by making a powerful dive to his left, and 14 minutes later when Donovan sealed it with a first-time strike from seven yards out.
While Donovan was quick to say all week long that Chicago had the greatest defense in the entire 10-team league led by his National Team buddy Carlos Bocanegra and Jim Curtin, it was his crafty run-making that made the difference on this day.
His ability to turn an ordinary offensive advance into a goal is one of the qualities that has brought him international stardom at the young age of 21, and was ultimately the dagger that stuck into the side of Chicago's usually-unbreakable defense.
"Landon gets credit for being good on the ball, but those of us around him every day know how great he is off of the ball," said Kinnear. "So many of his goals this year came because of his speed and smarts off the ball are astounding. And when he gets behind the defense, no one is going to catch him."
His first goal came in the 38th minute off a brilliant through-ball from Walker, yet it was Donovan's timing and speed that made the play.
Down numbers on a counterattack, the Redlands, Calif., native streaked to his left with a burst of speed while Walker dribbled up the left side. After passing Bocanegra, Walker played the ball to space where Donovan pounced on it before Fire defender Evan Whitfield could get a boot on it. He coolly strode into the box, hesitated slightly once Thornton approached, and tucked the ball to the goalkeeper's left to put San Jose up 2-0 before the end of the half.
Wearing a "We Miss You Clive" T-shirt to honor the late Clive Charles, Agoos marveled at his teammate during the postgame celebration.
"He's the most dangerous player in this league with the ball," said the 35-year-old. "As a defender, I'd hate to play against him."
While the season was trying at times for the Earthquakes due to several injuries to key players such as Ekelund, Brian Ching, Dwayne De Rosario, Troy Dayak and Arturo Alvarez and a less-than-spectacular 0-2-2 finish to the regular season, this year was also not the easiest of times for Donovan.
Facing newfound pressures after agreeing to stay in MLS for at least two more seasons last December, the 21-year-old's last 10 months were much tougher than in 2001 when San Jose stormed to its first title.
"It was much easier the first time because I was just the kid who could help out when needed," said Donovan. "This time around, I had to take much more responsibility, and I was glad to do it."
He fought off a midseason burnout due to excessive matches for both club and country, including the U-23 Olympic Team.
"I had to learn to remember it's a game, and it's a game I love," he said.
His final motivation came from seeing how many people predicted Chicago to win the match and accomplish a rare Treble for winning the regular-season title, the U.S. Open Cup, and MLS Cup. And it burned within him for the past seven days.
"Believe me, I read what everyone wrote this week," said Donovan. "How are you going to doubt us? I bet next year it (predictions) will come out and have San Jose in fourth place. I heard Chicago bitch and moan all week about how no one said they were going to make the playoffs. Give me a break.
"No one gave us a chance. And that makes it more special."
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: email@example.com.