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Dunivant adds a physical element to his game

Amidst the din of the Los Angeles Galaxy's championship celebrations last Sunday, Todd Dunivant sat back in his locker and soaked up the moment, a satisfied grin affixed to his face. It's only after a teasing comment about "getting on the field this time" - a reference to his bench-warming role in the 2003 title game - that some laughter emerges, and his perma-grin cranks up a few watts into a broad smile.

"It's so satisfying," Dunivant admits. "This team, nobody thought anything of us. But at the end of the day, we earned this. We beat the best team in the league in a two-game series. We went to Colorado when no one said we could win on the road and got a win there. Then we beat the best team in the East. We didn't have an easy road."

Seconds later, Dunivant's relaxed personality re-emerges, and therein lies the core of his game. The lows of L.A.'s midseason struggles were met with same easy manner as the team's successes. And on the field, Dunivant's consistent play on the left flank contributed mightily to the Galaxy's defensive improvement over the last two months of the season.

While Dunivant's happiness was derived mostly from his team's achievement, there was plenty of personal fulfillment attached as well. The steady defender was a spectator during San Jose's run to the championship two years ago, but not this time. As he had all season, Dunivant was on the field the whole way, and was one of the unsung heroes in his side's 1-0 win over New England.

"There is other satisfaction than just playing," said Dunivant. "But obviously this year, being on the field this time around was a great experience for me."

The circumstances of his preseason trade from San Jose provided Dunivant with another source of satisfaction at season's end. At the time of the deal, the return of Wade Barrett was given as the primary reason for Dunivant being expendable. Having two left backs, especially when the Quakes were thin up front, was a luxury that San Jose couldn't afford to keep.

The Galaxy were only too eager to take him off the Quakes' hands, especially since the wide open spaces of the Home Depot Center seemed better suited to Dunivant's game, a point the Los Angeles fullback readily concedes.

"With Herculez [Gomez] and Landon [Donovan] up top, they're so dangerous getting in behind," says Dunivant. "Being able to play those balls into space is one of my strengths, and those guys can get onto them, if anyone can. That definitely helps my game out."

But the whispers surrounding the trade labeled the Stanford grad as being soft; a player unable, or unwilling, to lay in a heavy challenge when needed. In the tight confines of Spartan Stadium, where some matches bear a closer resemblance to a street fight, Dunivant's lack of physicality was deemed an even bigger shortcoming.

It's a characterization that no defender wants to hear, no matter how cerebral his game, or how cultured his passing might be. And it's not the first time that Dunivant has heard that kind of criticism. But what rankles the third-year defender most is that it ignores the progress he has made in this area.

"It's a perception that's hard to shake," says Dunivant. "I'm not someone like [San Jose's] Eddie Robinson who bites peoples' heads off. I think there are other ways to go about it. But I've really concentrated this year on hardening up my defending."

A quick look at Dunivant's disciplinary record bears this out. The collegiate All-American had earned just three yellow cards in his first two years in the league combined. He equaled that total in this year's regular season, added two more cautions in the playoffs, and even earned a red card in Open Cup play.

While he won't be joining Vinnie Jones on the All-Thug XI just yet, the increased bite in Dunivant's game has given him a different dimension, as well as a chance to rebut his critics. And it's one that served him well in the playoffs where he was matched up against three accomplished wingers in San Jose's Brian Mullan, Colorado's Terry Cooke, and New England's Steve Ralston.

The consistency Dunivant showed in the regular season carried into the playoffs, and it was in the final that he was at his best. Ralston's injury troubles have been well documented, but that didn't stop the Rev's winger from seeing a lot of the ball. Yet Dunivant was equal to the challenge, and he often forced Ralston to receive the ball deeper in midfield than he would have liked. It resulted in the New England midfielder failing to deliver the crosses that are his specialty, and that meant a tough day at the office for New England forward Taylor Twellman, who had feasted on Ralston's service all year long.

For Dunivant, Ralston's lack of impact spoke volumes as to his performance, even if most of the credit for the Galaxy's stellar defensive display went to others.

"My job is to go out there and shut [people] down," says the Wheat Ridge, Col. native. "Whether it gets noticed or not, it doesn't really matter to me, as long as the job gets done. And I thought we did a good job of containing those guys."

While Dunivant's contribution doesn't always garner a lot of headlines, he is beginning to get noticed at international level. The Galaxy defender received word on Wednesday that he has been called into the national team camp slated to begin in January. Although Dunivant said that head coach Bruce Arena hasn't talked to him about his chances of making the final roster for Germany, given the scarcity of quality fullbacks in the U.S. player pool, it stands to reason that Dunivant will get a good, long look.

On the flip side, Dunivant's lack of involvement in the qualifying campaign means the camp will likely mark his last chance to make an impression. Dunivant added he's not feeling any additional pressure from the call-up, however, and is up to the challenge.

"I'm ready for it, I'm anxious for it," says Dunivant. "That's what every player works towards, and I think with the year I had, and the finish that the Galaxy had, I think I deserve that [invitation]."

And if Dunivant can snag an invite to next summer's World Cup, that grin he was sporting last Sunday may become permanently etched on his face.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.