They weren't talking about Landon Donovan before the game. Well, not like they usually do.
Philadelphia striker Jack McInerney, the league's leading scorer despite not being old enough to buy a beer, was a hot topic. Robbie Keane's fitness came up. Potential new signings for Los Angeles, either newly-crowned Europa League winner Frank Lampard or U.S. winger Robbie Rogers, was a subject run into the ground. But there was little hype for the five-time-MLS-Cup-winning, all-time-club-and-country-goal-leading, THAT-goal against-Algeria-scoring Landon Donovan.
Instead, there were questions. After his extended break away from soccer, was he really fully committed to the game and his career? After missing two penalties and handing over spot kick duties, had he lost his killer edge? In his absence, the USA had won a tough, snowy game against Costa Rica and drawn away to Mexico in the Azteca. Sports Illustrated reported that he was set to be left out of the U.S. national team squad for the team's June World Cup qualifiers. Was Donovan, so long the face of the U.S. program, suddenly surplus to requirements?
Questions, questions, everywhere. What is up with Landon Donovan?
And then, he showed them. Donovan was involved in all four goals as his LA Galaxy picked apart the Philadelphia Union. He served up the third-minute corner kick which went off Zac MacMath's face and into the net. After the Union equalized and gained the upper hand, pushing into the Galaxy's half, it was Donovan who set up Robbie Keane and Hector Jimenez to put his team ahead. And a few minutes from time, it was Landon Donovan who iced the cake and scored the fourth goal of the 4-1 win.
More than the box score, Landon looked like Landon. He wasn't just affective on offense, he was aggressive. Those perfectly-timed runs bombing down the right flank were back. So was the incisive passing. The willingness to take on players and beat them. And, of course, the confident finishing. Donovan would have had another goal on the night had MacMath not produced possibly the finest reflex save of his young career to deny the Galaxy captain.
"It always feels good to play well, and tonight I felt like I was back to my old self, in all ways," Donovan told reporters after the game. "The goal is nice, but I think the aggression, the running at people and making a difference in that way felt like the old me, and it was nice to play that way again."
The Philadelphia Union isn't Mexico, or even Algeria. It's not one of the Premier League sides that Donovan played against while on loan to Everton. MLS isn't the World Cup or the Premier League. But few of the 17,031 people who were in attendance, or the thousands who followed the game at home, would deny that on Wednesday night, they witnessed a vintage Landon Donovan.
Donovan declined to attach any wider meaning to his performance, attempting to divorce the display from the context in which such a performance from the league's best-ever player had come to be seen as something remarkable, rather than routine.
"I'm just trying to play well," he said when asked if his performance constituted a statement about his place on the national team. "I can't control what else happens. My job is to play well. I haven't played well for a few weeks and I want to use this and continue to play well. That's all I can control.
"Whatever people want to take from it, they take from it. I wanted to play better than I have the last few weeks and tonight I really felt like I was my old self again. I felt like the confidence was back. Obviously, hitting the net helps, but I felt like everything sort of came together tonight, and I think this will be more the norm going forward."
He admitted that his confidence had taken a hit following his widely-publicized pair of penalty kick misses in recent weeks.
"When you miss a couple penalties, that can hurt the confidence," he said. "I've had some chances where I could have done a better job and probably scored. I had some chances where I could have run at people and been more aggressive, and today I just said 'You know what, If I make mistakes, I'm gonna make aggressive mistakes.'"
Donovan may not want to talk about his chances of a return to the national team, but if he keeps trying to make those "aggressive mistakes," he won't need to. Landon Donovan showed against Philadelphia that he is still Landon Donovan. And Landon Donovan is a national team player.
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- Landon Donovan
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