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Apr 27, 2008

Donovan thriving with Beckham

CARSON, Calif. -- Back when David Beckham first imagined that he could help trigger something of a soccer revolution in the U.S., he might have envisioned games such as the one on Saturday, in which the Galaxy battled Chivas USA before emerging triumphant, 5-2.

After all, the game was a sellout, featured impressive goals and even had the requisite celebrity cachet, with Tom Cruise and Wayne Gretzky among those in attendance.

The hockey great, whose stunning move to the LA Kings in 1988 has often been compared to Beckham's own Galaxy transfer, admitted he hadn't followed the sport much before.

"This was really my first soccer game ever," Gretzky said. Although he praised Beckham's tough play and consistent effort, Gretzky couldn't help but bring up another Galaxy player. "[Landon] Donovan was pretty good, too. It was fun to watch."

Of course, a hockey player would notice Donovan's hat trick in the contest versus the Galaxy's intra-city rival. Though none of Donovan's goals were as breathtaking as Sacha Kljestan's opening tally for the Red-and-White, they were all quality strikes, well-taken against one of the league's top goalkeepers, Brad Guzan.

"He's a special player, Landon," Beckham said.

Donovan's talents have been known for some time. The midfielder/striker holds the U.S. national team records for goals (35) and assists (30). He has won three MLS titles, two with the San Jose Earthquakes (2001, 2003) and one with the Galaxy in 2005.

Yet Donovan has often received the brunt of criticism when his team, whether national or club, has fallen short. The U.S. crashed out of the first round of the World Cup in 2006, while the Galaxy failed to reach the playoffs over the last two seasons. Objectively speaking, other players were probably more to blame for the disappointments, but because of Donovan's ability, more was expected of him.

Statistically, Donovan has never really had a poor club season, but though it's still early, he has been absolutely on fire, leading the league with eight goals after five games.

His partnership with Beckham has brought out new aspects to his play -- revealing a player who is taking full advantage of the upgrade in quality that the England international offers.

"Having David healthy and fit takes pressure off me," Donovan said.

Beckham, as the high-profile ambassador of soccer in the U.S., has used his mantle of celebrity to bring more exposure to MLS. The focus on Beckham has been so intense that some speculated Donovan would feel neglected and his play would suffer. Instead, he has thrived in the role of sidekick.

"It's nice for both of us to be in the position that we're in," Beckham said. "He also takes the pressure off me, because he's scoring some great goals. He's scoring goals that are winning us games. I can do my job. I can do my assists and that's what I do."

The duo accounted for all of the Galaxy's goals this season until substitute Alan Gordon headed in the game-winning goal in the 76th minute of the second half, breaking a 2-2 deadlock.

Both Donovan and Beckham went out of their way to praise Gordon, while Ruud Gullit stated that he considered the team's Man of the Match to be defender Sean Franklin. It was a team-first attitude that revealed a squad is beginning to coalesce into a strong unit.

The competition is paying attention.

"I think their preseason helped bring the team together," said Chivas USA striker Maykel Galindo. "Beckham is healthy and playing well. He had a good game for them."

Besides shouldering the responsibility of setting up many plays and opportunities, Beckham has also relieved Donovan of some of the leadership tasks, including the team captaincy.

In the past, it seemed a bit incongruous, to see a player so young (Donovan turned 26 this March) suggest ways his teammates could improve. Even when he was right, it's not hard to imagine that a certain amount of resentment could creep in concerning Donovan.

Beckham, however, has such a well-established playing resumé that his credibility in MLS is unmatched.

"When things aren't going well, he'll be the first to point it out," Galaxy goalkeeper Steve Cronin said.

Yet Beckham is also quick to offer compliments, reveling in the progress of the squad.

"A very good team performance, a fighting performance against a good team," said Beckham of the Galaxy's win.

With Beckham beside him, Donovan is more liberated -- free from much of the media hassle he once faced, free from having to always create for his team, free from having to guide the squad. Donovan has, in effect, been cut loose to just play.

"I feel like I'm being more assertive and aggressive," Donovan said. "I know I have that ability and lately I've felt good doing those things."

It's translated to a better and more attractive product on the field, one with the potential to draw new fans.

"The excitement is what does a lot for people who are watching soccer for maybe the first time and coming to the stadium for the first time," Beckham said.

"It's one of the best games of the season that you can come to, especially because it's an evening game and the lights are on," he said. "There's more of an atmosphere. Especially, like I said, when it's rivals: Chivas USA versus the Galaxy.

"There's a great atmosphere in the stadium. We've had that in almost all the stadiums that we've traveled to. We had it here tonight. We need to keep that going, because that's what gets people coming to see soccer games and coming to see the Galaxy."

Indeed, though many people will come to MLS stadiums to see Beckham, more performances like the one Donovan turned in could bring them back to see the Galaxy.

"He's created such a buzz here and created such a positive influence on the sport," said Gretzky of Beckham.

It's a catalyst affect -- and Donovan can attest that it is a powerful one.

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com.