By THOMAS FLOYD
CARSON, Calif. – Landon Donovan, it would appear, has a knack for timing.
While struggling with various ailments, including a particularly troublesome quadriceps strain, the Los Angeles Galaxy captain notched just one goal and one assist in the regular season after the end of July. Although he scored in two straight playoff matches heading into the MLS Cup against Houston, both tallies came via the penalty spot.
But when Donovan took the Home Depot Center field Sunday, the spring was back in his step — restored largely thanks to a two-week layoff since the Western Conference final. After threatening the Dynamo's back line throughout the contest, he found the match's lone goal with a superb strike in the 72nd minute.
Come game's end, Donovan was accepting the contest's Most Valuable Player honors and lifting the Philip F. Anschutz trophy. When it mattered most, he rounded into form.
"Landon's been hurt over the last two or three months," Los Angeles coach Bruce Arena said. "He started to get his legs back a little bit this week. This was important to Landon. I could see as we got to the middle of the week he was starting to get a little bit of his old flair back, his fitness and everything else."
That was bad news for Houston.
After Galaxy striker Robbie Keane collected a flick-on header from David Beckham and brushed off a challenge from Dynamo defender Bobby Boswell, the Ireland international looked up and touched a pass to a streaking Donovan.
With goalkeeper Tally Hall closing the angle, Donovan chipped a shot that deflected off Hall's hand and trickled into the far-side netting. The 1-0 lead would be all Los Angeles needed.
"Landon made a good run," Keane said. "When you're playing with good players, it makes your job a lot easier."
Added Beckham: "He deserves to score that goal."
Fifteen minutes prior, Arena made the move that set the stage for Donovan's dramatic tally. With Adam Cristman struggling up top, Arena replaced the bruising striker with midfielder Chris Birchall and pushed Donovan into a withdrawn forward role.
Donovan had shown a remarkable understanding with Keane when the two were partnered late in the Galaxy's 3-1 win over Real Salt Lake in the Western Conference final, and that chemistry was on full display again Sunday.
"When I get there, my sole purpose is to be as aggressive as possible and to make good runs," Donovan said. "People, justifiably so, see Robbie as a great goal-scorer, but he's a great soccer player. The pass he gave me for the goal was fantastic — absolutely world class."
With the triumph, Donovan followed in the footsteps of Dwayne De Rosario to become the second player to twice win MLS Cup MVP honors. The league title was the fourth of his distinguished career, but his first since 2005.
"It's tough to say right now, but I'm happy for him," said Houston forward Brian Ching, who won the 2003 MLS Cup with Donovan in San Jose. "He always steps up in big moments."
Donovan's performance was the kind of outing the U.S. national team could have used during its friendly loss at France earlier this month. The 29-year-old, however, withdrew from the roster for that match because, as Arena put it, "He would not have been able to get on a plane and go to Europe and play. He needed the time off."
"This has been a long year, a trying year," Donovan acknowledged. "There are times where you get tired and mentally you wear down."
Against Houston, though, Donovan looked as sharp as ever. Before shifting up top, he terrorized Dynamo left back Jermaine Taylor with his on-the-ball pace, forming a dynamic partnership with overlapping right back Sean Franklin.
The hobbled, fatigued Donovan of late was nowhere to be found. The Donovan who has built a reputation as one of the most prolific attackers in the history of MLS and U.S. Soccer had re-emerged.
"Everyone has been talking about how he's been kind of quiet and stuff like that," Franklin said. "But he stepped up big tonight."