Easy Does It for Donovan

Times Staff Writer

There are all sorts of players who could take today's Major League Soccer championship game by the scruff of the neck and shake a title out of it.

Landon Donovan isn't one of them.

Unlike some of his teammates on the San Jose Earthquakes -- and especially unlike some his opponents on the Chicago Fire -- Donovan's game is more about finesse than fury, more about vision than violence.

Not that Donovan shies from the physical side of the sport. On the contrary, he can throw elbows with the best of them. But when Donovan is at his best he is a player of ghosting grace rather than grit and grime.

Which is why Chicago will have to be aware of him for all 90 minutes of this afternoon's MLS Cup 2003 at the Home Depot Center. If Carlos Bocanegra and the rest of the Fire defenders let him escape for one moment, the chances are he will punish them.

Frank Yallop is counting on it. The San Jose coach is unstinting in his praise of Donovan, who, even though he is only 21, already will have an heir-apparent watching from the stands today in 14-year-old Freddy Adu.

Adu is said to be even more talented than Donovan, to have even more speed, even more skill and even more potential, but for the moment it is Donovan who holds center stage.

"I think from Day 1 we all knew about Landon's talents," Yallop said last week. "I think from Day 1 to now you've seen a player grow into -- and I don't use this [phrase] very often -- a world-class player. I really believe that whatever Landon wants to do in soccer he can go ahead and do it.

"When they [people overseas] talk about young players, Landon's name gets brought up. I go to England regularly, and they know Landon. They know all about him. He had a wonderful World Cup [in 2002], so he's known. There's no doubt about that."

But it might not make any difference.

The Earthquakes' come-from-behind overtime victories over the Galaxy and the Kansas City Wizards in the playoffs have caused Donovan, who spent two fairly frustrating years with Bayer Leverkusen in Germany and whose MLS contract expires after next season, to consider staying in the league rather than giving Europe a second try.

"If next year has similar games like the last two weeks, I don't know why anyone would want to leave," he said. "As far as fan support and just the feeling around the team, that was a dream. That's exactly why you play.

"I can honestly say I don't know what my future holds, and I don't know what I'm going to want after next year. I think during this year I've turned a little bit more toward the possibility of going to Europe, if there's the right opportunity. But next year I could change and just say, 'You know what? I'm happy here and I don't want to leave.'

"You learn a lot about yourself as you grow up. You learn about yourself as a person and as a soccer player, and I'm still learning. Hopefully, by next year I'll know."

The immediate future is easier to fathom. Donovan and fellow forwards Dwayne DeRosario, Jamil Walker and Rodrigo Faria, and attacking midfielder Brian Mullan, have to find a way to pierce a Fire defense that has not given up a goal in the playoffs.

"Chicago is going to be the best defensive team we've played," Donovan said. "Carlos [Bocanegra] is their leader in the back; Jim Curtin is probably one of the most underrated defenders in the league, and they've got Chris Armas and Jesse Marsch who are always around the ball.

"I think we've got to be patient and keep [possession of] the ball and keep moving.... If we can do that and get a few sequences where we create good chances, I think we'll have a better chance of scoring."

Yallop said the key for Donovan to have an impact today is the team's overall performance.

"Landon's not a target man," he said. "Landon plays well when we're playing well because he comes [into the attack] late. He reads plays, he gets around the goal, he's dangerous. If he's not getting any service, it's tough.

"He's not an individual player like [Galaxy striker] Carlos Ruiz, like [Fire forward and MLS rookie of the year] Damani Ralph, the type of player who just gets the ball anywhere on the field and can wriggle and do stuff.

"Landon's game depends on good [team] play; he reads stuff whenever other players get the ball, and he usually, if not always, finishes when he gets a good [scoring] chance."

In an evenly balanced final between the league's top two teams, all it might take is one chance.



MLS Cup 2003

* What: Major League Soccer's championship game.

* Who: Chicago Fire vs. San Jose Earthquakes.

* Where: Home Depot Center.

* When: 12:30 p.m.

* TV: Channel 7.

* How they got here: The Fire won the Eastern Conference with two 2-0 playoff victories over D.C. United and a 1-0 shutout of the New England Revolution. The Earthquakes won the Western Conference with a 5-4 aggregate playoff victory over the Galaxy (losing, 2-0, and winning, 5-2, in overtime) and a 3-2 overtime victory over the Kansas City Wizards.

* Key players: Carlos Bocanegra, Chris Armas, DaMarcus Beasley, Ante Razov and Damani Ralph (Chicago); Pat Onstad, Jeff Agoos, Jamil Walker, Dwayne DeRosario and Landon Donovan (San Jose).

* 2003 results: The teams each played to a 0-0 tie at home and Chicago won the other game, 4-1, at San Jose.

* Coaches: Dave Sarachan (Fire); Frank Yallop (Earthquakes).

* Referee: Brian Hall.


* 1996: D.C. United 3, Galaxy 2

Foxboro, Mass. (34,643)

* 1997: D.C. United 2, Colorado 1

Washington (57,431)

* 1998: Chicago 2, D.C. United 0

Rose Bowl (51,530)

* 1999: D.C. United 2, Galaxy 0

Foxboro, Mass. (44,910)

* 2000: Kansas City 1, Chicago 0

Washington ( 39,862)

* 2001: San Jose 2, Galaxy 1

Columbus, Ohio (21,626)

* 2002: Galaxy 1, New England 0

Foxboro, Mass. (61,316)

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