SEATTLE -- Of all the 14 players to step up and take penalty kicks in Sunday night's MLS Cup final, none had taken or made more MLS penalties than Los Angeles Galaxy star Landon Donovan.
The reigning MLS MVP had made 21 of 23 career penalty kicks and had to be favored to find a way to beat Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando, renowned as an ace at stopping penalty kicks. Donovan stood poised to do just that as he looked up and watched Rimando heading to his left. Somewhere between that realization and Donovan's striking of the ball, he lost focus just enough to send his kick well over the goal.
The unexpected miss breathed life into Real Salt Lake, and by the time Robbie Russell converted the championship-winning penalty kick, Donovan could only soak in the disappointment of his first MLS Cup final loss in four appearances.
"You don't want to judge yourself based on one loss or one penalty-kick shootout, but unfortunately that's what you're judged on at the end," Donovan said. "We're very proud of where we got to, but it's hard in this moment to feel good."
"Penalty shootouts are part of soccer, and we don't have a choice whether we want to do that or not, but it's a difficult way to lose for every team," Donovan said. "After the pain from the loss subsides, we'll realize what a great year we had and we'll build on that."
Donovan's night began with so much promise, as he delivered a beautiful pass to Mike Magee for the Galaxy's first-half goal, but that contribution was the lone bright spot on an otherwise frustrating night for the U.S. national team star. Russell did a good job of containing Donovan, who struggled to find the ball as the central midfield tandem of Jovan Kirovski and Chris Birchall failed to provide much support.
"That all comes down the fact that I had guys around me helping me the whole time," Russell said of dealing with Donovan. "It showed that we shut down their attackers and came away with the win."
"PKs are one of those things where anyone can miss it, and anyone can make it," Russell said of Donovan's miss. "You look at some of the greatest players in the world. They've missed PKs."
Donovan's miss brought reminders of the one other high-profile penalty miss of his career, a saved penalty against Mexico's Pachuca on what would have been the winning kick in the 2007 SuperLiga Final.
"I didn't think [Donovan] was going to miss it, to be honest with you," Rimando said. "I knew he was going to go high; I didn't know if it would be to the right or left.
"Any kind of miss, whether I save it or it's a missed penalty kick, we were going to have the advantage."
Donovan's teammates weren't about to blame him for the loss. David Beckham could be seen hugging Donovan afterwards as he reminded him of the good season the Galaxy had, while Magee adamantly defended a player who had stepped up for the Galaxy so many times before.
"Anyone who wants to blame Landon doesn't know what they're talking about," Magee said. "He's the leading goal scorer in playoff history and he's what, 27? We didn't lose because of him. He's one of the reasons we were here."
The Galaxy's loss came down to far more than just Donovan's miss. Jovan Kirovski and Edson Buddle both had poor penalty-kick attempts saved by Rimando, and in regulation there were few bright spots for the Galaxy, with Magee and Gregg Berhalter two of the few players to turn in strong performances.
"We didn't play well enough during the 120 minutes to win the game," said Galaxy coach Bruce Arena. "Landon had a fabulous year and has been a great captain and I told him that."
Whether Donovan is back in 2010 to help push the Galaxy toward another shot at an MLS Cup remains to be seen. While he has a league option year that is certain to be exercised for 2010, there is still the possibility of his being sold this winter or loaned out. Donovan wasn't about to think about a potential departure from the Galaxy after five years with the club. He was too busy still trying to make sense of a dramatic and disappointing end to an otherwise stellar season.
"Sometimes in life things happen that you can't understand and can't explain," Donovan said. "You certainly learn a lot more from a moment like this than from winning, but winning feels a lot better."
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.