Landon Donovan carried the LA Galaxy to tremendous heights in his time with the club. In his last game in their strip, though, Donovan was a passenger.
Fans and media love storybook endings for star athletes, though for different reasons. For instance, New York Yankees fans ate up Derek Jeter's final at-bat at Yankee Stadium, a walk-off single. The media loved it, too, but not because it won the Yankees a game or put the final touch on Jeter's legend in the Bronx.
The media loved it because it made for an easy story.
Donovan actually gave his fans and the media a storybook ending, of sorts. He just provided it about a month early.
Going into the Galaxy's Nov. 9 playoff match with Real Salt Lake, the second leg of Major League Soccer's Western Conference semi-final, Donovan had scored one goal in eight MLS games over the previous two months. To continue their quest for another MLS Cup, the Galaxy had to get out of the first playoff round.
Donovan took care of that. His hat trick against Real Salt Lake propelled the Galaxy into the Western Conference final with the Seattle Sounders.
The moment was not lost on Galaxy supporters. "He extended his own MLS record to 25 career playoff goals and left to a standing ovation," noted The Associated Press (h/t ESPNFC.com).
It is good that they noticed, because that hat trick was the last magic Donovan would conjure for the Galaxy.
Donovan did not find the scoresheet in either leg of the Galaxy's triumph over the Sounders, but that did not deter anyone from envisioning Donovan authoring one last signature moment in the Cup final against the New England Revolution.
"Candidly, I don’t want it to end right now," Donovan told Scott French of MLSsoccer.com. "It's been a lot of fun. And I'm going to have that attitude Sunday. I personally want it to be as enjoyable as possible, and that would be winning.”
The Galaxy did win, posting a 2-1 victory over the Revs in extra time. The result gave Donovan his sixth MLS title, as noted by French "more than any other player in league history."
But when the highlight reels of Donovan's career are playing at the National Soccer Hall of Fame in the coming years, this last performance is going to end up on the cutting room floor.
"Donovan didn’t score in his final game, but he provided some dangerous moments and showed his versatility, playing in three different positions," love-noted Grant Wahl for Sports Illustrated.
Wahl came much closer to the truth about Donovan's performance and the match as a whole when he called it "a final that was often marked by poor touches and disjointed play."
Donovan's best chance to score actually came on a play where he never got the ball. Robbie Keane, so long Donovan's attacking partner, took on a defender and Revolution goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth instead of passing to an open Donovan, with predictable results.
"In the 70th minute Keane made some exquisite touches to leave himself one on one with Shuttleworth only to make the poor decision to shoot when Donovan was waiting for the tap in just to his left," wrote Graham Parker for The Guardian.
On one level, Keane's curious choice on that play can be viewed as a ball-hogging, me-first striker doing what ball-hogging, me-first strikers do.
On another level, though, Keane's decision to take the play on by himself can be seen in the same light as Jurgen Klinsmann's decision to leave Donovan off the American World Cup side this past summer.
A funny thing happens in sports, and in the world at large, when you let it be known that you are leaving before you actually go, or that there are more important things than the job you are doing.
The perception arises (fair or not) that you are no longer "all in" on the venture, be it a sports team, a regular work-a-day job or any other position for which uncompromised commitment is expected.
When that happens, well, would you entrust a short-timer at your present job with the biggest presentation of your working year? Probably not.
Had Keane laid the ball off to Donovan in the 70th minute and had Donovan scored, it would have given all concerned the storybook ending that so many craved, but it would not have materially changed the facts.
And the facts are this: Donovan is still capable of moments of excellence. Unlike the greatest players, though, he cannot create them at will. If he could, that November hat trick against Real Salt Lake might have waited until December.
To his credit, Donovan realized that this opportunity to leave on top was unique, and he took it.
Good on him. Smart, too.