By KAYLA KNAPP
CARSON, CALIF. – When Landon Donovan stepped up to the penalty spot in the 73rd minute on Thursday night, the tension was thick. The Los Angeles Galaxy captain has been under scrutiny lately – in recent interviews, he made comments about taking a break from soccer.
When Donovan calmly drilled the penalty kick past Vancouver Whitecaps goalkeeper Brad Knighton, giving the Galaxy a 2-1 lead and assuring their spot in the Western Conference semifinals – all the worry about his future was forgotten, at least momentarily.
The Galaxy overcame an early deficit set up by a third-minute Darren Mattocks strike, finally breaking down the Whitecaps defense when Mike Magee struck a perfect volley to tie the match. Donovan did the rest, drawing a penalty call courtesy of a Martin Bonjour foul before converting the spot kick to help send the Galaxy into the Western Conference semifinals.
“I’m not so concerned about scoring goals,” Donovan said of his game-winning penalty kick. “I want to win, it was a night where we needed a couple of guys to make plays. Mike [Magee] made a fantastic play to score an unbelievable goal and that really set us on our way.”
And the Galaxy captain was right – Magee’s goal in the 69th minute breathed life back into the Los Angeles attack. The player who came up big for the Galaxy in the playoffs last year is off to a good start in the 2012 post-season.
“I’m so much more nervous for these games than I am any other, but just as a team, we battle as a team, and I’ve kind of been the beneficiary goal-wise the last two years, but this team keeps battling away,” Magee said after the win. “Being down a goal, we had to push, and tonight it was my turn.”
Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena was pleased with the performance, despite giving up the early goal.
“We had to show patience. It’s the kind of game we expected. We thought we’d have a lot of the ball,” Arena said post-match. “Vancouver would get numbers behind the ball and make it difficult for us. We really put ourselves in a difficult position conceding the goal in the early minutes of the game. We showed a lot of character to scrap and fight and get back in that game. So it’s a great result for our team.”
Though obviously disappointed with the loss, Vancouver head coach Martin Rennie found lots of positives to take into the off season.
“The overall performance from our players, the effort, the belief, the determination was top class. It showed our club making a big step forward,” Rennie said after the match. “This season has been a good season in that regard, we’ve taken massive strides forward. Got ourselves into the playoffs for the first time. I think with a little bit of luck tonight we could have easily gotten ourselves into the next round.”
After knocking out Vancouver, the Galaxy now face their California rivals, the San Jose Earthquakes, in the next round of playoffs, which is sure to be a highly entertaining series. But getting there wasn’t easy.
Los Angeles put themselves in a hole early against Vancouver, giving up a goal in the 4th minute, when Matt Watson smoked Hector Jimenez – who played right back in place of the injured Sean Franklin – crossed the ball to Darren Mattocks who finished the pass perfectly past Josh Saunders. The visitors took an early lead, shaking the confidence of the reigning MLS Cup champions on their home field.
After their early goal, the Whitecaps settled into what the Galaxy expected to face in this knockout match: almost the entire team behind the ball, defending a relentless attack.
“I think patience is the key tonight, it’s certainly not the way that we wanted to start the game,” Donovan said. “Kind of one play broke us down and we were behind the eightball. Our determination was good and we kept putting them under pressure.”
The Galaxy dominated in possession, but just couldn’t break down the tough Vancouver defense. The Whitecaps maintained their fragile 1-0 lead until late in the second half, when the goal-scorer from Sunday’s regular season finale against the Sounders came through again.
In the 69th minute, none other than Magee scored the equalizer from the top of the box to tie the match up. Then, just four minutes later, Donovan drew the penalty kick, and buried the shot, and snagging the game-winner.
The Galaxy will face the San Jose Earthquakes in the first leg of the Western Conference semifinals on Sunday at the Home Depot Center, and they are excited for it – especially Donovan.
“I always hold a special place in my heart for [the San Jose Earthquakes], especially for Frank so it’ll be enjoyable in that sense,” Donovan said of his former team. “But it’s not going to affect the way that I approach the game or play the game, but it will be good to see those guys on the other side of the field.”
There are some injury concerns for the Galaxy heading into Sunday’s clash. Sean Franklin [left leg] and Christian Wilhelmsson[right quadriceps] sat out Thursday’s match, and Juninho [apparent Achilles] picked up a knock up during the match.
While Arena said he expects Franklin back for Sunday, is hopeful Wilhelmsson will be ready, and Juninho will be assessed tomorrow (but he expects him to be fine), depth will be the key for Los Angeles heading into the two-leg semifinal.
“The key is going to be recovering quickly,” Donovan said of the short turnaround to Sunday’s match – just three days away. “We need guys that are fresh and ready to go. As I said all year, this team has 25, 28 players that can step in and do a good job. If Bruce needs to make changes then he’s got no problem doing that.”