It was the sort of blue-collar-type goal we've come to expect from Landon Donovan.
The 72nd-minute build-up by the Los Angeles Galaxy was brilliant (by MLS standards) soccer: nothing with La Liga flair or Premiere League speed, but effective and worth note. A flicked header from one big-name designated player to another, Englishman David Beckham to Ireland's Robbie Keane. A well-executed cut by Keane, followed by a well-played through-ball.
Here came Donovan, racing out of nowhere, making the necessary run at the necessary time, as he's known to do. Sprinting through the Houston Dynamo defense, unimpeded, with nothing but wide-open Home Depot Center grass and an alleyway to the goal ahead of him. The ball from Keane was perfect, hitting America's soccer sweetheart in stride.
The story line on this night, the final game of the 2011 Major League Soccer season was supposed to be all Beckham. The final game of his somewhat-storied (for better and worse) five-year stay amongst the American game, with one final chance at championship glory. At times since signing a record-setting contract to leave Europe for the U.S., he'd appeared only mildly interested or possibly disillusioned by it all. But this season had been different, with the Galaxy posting the top record in the league, and heading into Sunday night as the heavy favorite in its home stadium. David Beckham the Brand seemed to have stepped aside in order for David Beckham the Footballer to show his (remaining) mettle.
All night Beckham had been serving his trademark crosses into the box, setting up what could and should have been a couple of goals, had it been Ruud Van Nistelrooy or Ronaldo on the receiving end. But he had Adam Cristman. Headers and volleys were flying every which way; none of them threatening the goalkeeper. There were whispers of a torn hamstring after the match, speaking to his less-than-top-speed runs and late-game grimaces. But Beckham played the full 90 minutes, probably realizing that 75 percent of Becks is better than 150 percent of whatever else Bruce Arena had on the bench. If this were going to be his last match in a league that's given his career a second(or third)-life, he was going to be on the pitch when the confetti fell.
Surprisingly, the effort didn't feel selfish. It seemed this win was something Beckham would cherish, maybe even place upon the mantle beside the UEFA Champions League trophy from 1999. So he trudged on for himself, for his teammates, maybe even for Donovan, with whom he'd had a contentious relationship from the beginning. This title could bring closure -- or it could just punctuate how valuable his role was to Donovan's and the Galaxy's success.
He'd flicked-on that longball from the back, playing the ball cleanly to Keane. He'd done his part.
This last part was on Donovan. The exclamation point on the end of a five-year run playing beside Beckham -- the player who'd stolen his thunder as the biggest draw in the league -- was his to complete. The ball had the perfect pace. Donovan had a defender in an orange jersey on his heels and a goalkeeper stuck in no-man's land, forced to leave his line in desperate hope of making a play. The odds were with the man with the widow's peak and the raptor running arms.
The goalkeeper went to the ground, cutting off a shot to the near post or to the far corner. Donovan took the only option possible: a simple flick using the outside of his right foot, hit low on the ball to give it lift, enough to overcome the outstretched arm, and hard enough to prevent the defender from catching up. It was almost Messi, but slightly messy. The goalkeeper got a glove on it, slowing the pace. It bounced twice, then struck the side net. Gooooooaaaa-laso!
This game was never the Dynamo's to win, only Donovan's and Beckham's to lose. Donovan had been a footnote all night to Beckham's swan song effort. But when the opportunity presented itself, calling for minimal showmanship but top-notch precision, Donovan was there to send the stadium into an uproar and Beckham off to his next post-prime tour.