Sports Soccer

Is Donovan retiring after the MLS Cup?

By Kurt Larson, Toronto Sun

Los Angeles Galaxy forward Landon Donovan announced his impending retirement earlier this season. (USA TODAY SPORTS)

Los Angeles Galaxy forward Landon Donovan announced his impending retirement earlier this season. (USA TODAY SPORTS)

LOS ANGELES - 

A U.S. soccer legend forgot Sunday’s MLS Cup is largely about him.

“I don’t want it to end right now,” L.A. Galaxy midfielder Landon Donovan said of his career — common words for someone about to hang ’em up.

Only the 32-year-old has a choice in the matter. He isn’t injured or decrepit.

Donovan, a household name among soccer fans around the globe, will make his final professional appearance in a Cup final against the New England Revolution here Sunday afternoon without any explanation as to why he has made the decision.

At 32, the league’s all-time leading scorer pulled a Barry Sanders this summer and announced his impending retirement — an affirmation that stopped the presses when Donovan dumbfounded reporters Friday by indicating he isn’t ready to call it quits.

Then again, that’s just Landon, a soccer icon whose mechanical persona has puzzled onlookers through four World Cup cycles.

On the field, however, he’s the most productive player this league has seen — something that will have cameras trained on him for the entirety of Sunday’s game.

“Our job is to focus on what we need to do,” New England bench boss Jay Heaps said of the Donovan distraction. “Landon is an excellent player — a legend. His legacy will stand on its own.

“But we’re going into this game preparing ourselves and continuing to stick to our process and be ready for the game. All that other stuff is just noise.”

There’s plenty of that other “stuff” ahead of one of the most intriguing MLS Cups in recent memory. And much of it centres around how awful New England has been in its 19-year history.

“They already are the Buffalo Bills (of MLS),” former Revolution forward Taylor Twellman told the Toronto Sun in passing Saturday.

Both Twellman and Heaps were members of the four New England teams that failed to win the league’s title game in four appearances (2002, ’05, ’06, ’07).

“Teams are living, breathing organisms,” Heaps said. “Every final is different. For me, (the past) has no bearing on Sunday’s game at all.”

He did, however, admit playing second fiddle four times was a “driving force” behind leaving his job at Morgan Stanley to become his former club’s head coach back in 2011.

“Having played in four finals and not won, something was missing,” Heaps said. “Working for (Robert Kraft) was really important for me. I wanted to dive into that for as long as I could to get back to where we wanted this club to be.”

Back to competing against top clubs like the Galaxy for titles.

But after losing twice to the Tinseltown team in the ’02 and ’05 MLS Cups, finally lifting the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy will prove far more complicated than merely competing.

The four-time champs haven’t lost a home MLS fixture since dropping their opener to visiting Real Salt Lake, who the Galaxy then turned around and smashed 5-0 in a Western Conference playoff rout last month.

“All teams are better at home,” L.A. Galaxy coach Bruce Arena said. “You’re playing in a real game on a real field against a team that plays. (MLS Cups) tend to be aggressive and wide open. Some teams aren’t up to that task.”

Advantage L.A., right?

Add in the fact the Galaxy is loaded with players who have played in big games and the odds inch further towards insurmountable for inexperienced New England.

“We have a group of guys that know what this is about,” Donovan said of Sunday’s final. “For me, it’s very clear what the objective is and what you have to do to win. We have a lot of guys that know how to play in games like this.”

Along with a decisive home-field advantage, the Galaxy wholeheartedly believe experience will prove key. So much so words like strategy, formation and tactics were forbidden words around StubHub Center during the teams’ final walkthroughs

“They have 11 players and we have 11 players,” Arena responded when asked how he’ll combat New England’s five midfielders. “They don’t have any extra players. We all have the same number of players.

“You guys (reporters) get very confused. They don’t have any extra players. There are no extra players out there. Nobody stays in these formations that you say. It’s constantly shifting throughout a game.”

While questions surrounding the oft over-analyzed tactical side of the game are something managers like Arena often shy away from, some key battles are expected to emerge around the park.

The midfield tussle between New England’s Lee Nguyen and Jermaine Jones and the Galaxy’s Juninho and Marcelo Sarvas will go a long way in determining how much relief the Revolution’s back four will receive.

The inability for Jones and Nguyen to hold up their end of the bargain will see the visitors under siege from the likes of Donovan and Robbie Keane, who told reporters this week he plans to do everything to send his strike partner out with a victory.

“It’s up there with some of the best partnerships I’ve ever had,” Keane said of playing with Donovan. “He has made the decision to retire, which is a shame ... That’s up to him. If anyone deserves to go out on a high, it’s certainly Landon.”

It’s similar to what the Houston Dynamo faced here in David Beckham’s farewell MLS Cup final two years ago.

In truth, anything but a proper, winning send off for Donovan simply doesn’t seem likely.

The only question now is whether it’s truly the end.

CANADIAN-BORN BUNBURY COULD JOIN MLS FOLKLORE

LOS ANGELES — Hardcore Canadian fans call him Judas.

But Teal Bunbury continues to acknowledge his Canadian roots despite spurning his birth nation in a hopeful bid to find consistent playing time with the U.S. national team.

As he still holds a Canadian passport, the 24-year-old Bunbury will join an elite group if his New England Revolution dispatch the L.A. Galaxy at StubHub Center on Sunday afternoon.

Just five Canadians have both appeared in and won Major League Soccer’s top prize through 19 seasons.

“That’s very interesting,” Bunbury told the Toronto Sun. “But I want to win first before I start thinking about that.”

With both an appearance and win a win here Sunday, Bunbury will join Will Johnson (Real Salt Lake 2009), Pat Onstad (San Jose Earthquakes ’03; Houston Dynamo ’06 and ’07), Dwayne De Rosario (San Jose Earthquakes ’01 and ’03; Houston Dynamo ’06 and ’07), Adrian Serioux (Houston Dynamo ’06) and Geoff Aunger (D.C. United, 1999) as the only Canadians to see the field in an MLS Cup victory.

Bunbury won an MLS Cup last season with Sporting Kansas City, but didn’t appear in the match.

“With this group of guys in New England the mentality is there,” Bunbury said when asked to compare the experiences.

“In Kansas City, everyone was on point, too,” he added. “The chemistry was there and we have the same thing here in New England. Everyone is fighting for each other.”

He looked surprised when informed he will join a second elite group if the visiting Revs shock the Galaxy.

Bunbury could become the first MLSer to win back-to-back MLS Cups with different clubs.

Throughout his time with Kansas City and now New England, the Hamilton-born attacker has had vitriol hurled his way whenever he returns to play away dates in the Great White North.

After appearing for Canada at the youth level, Bunbury, who holds dual-citizenship, abruptly switched allegiances at the senior level when the U.S. came calling, a decision he said he doesn’t regret.

When asked a bit sarcastically to offer a message to his “fans” back in Canada, Bunbury bowed out gracefully.

“Thanks for those in Canada who have stuck with me and supported me,” Bunbury said. “I appreciate it.”

His father, Alex, who appeared more than 60 times for Canada and won an MLS Cup with Kansas City in 2000, will be in attendance Sunday afternoon.

RYAN NELSEN STILL STEAMING OVER TFC SACKING

LOS ANGELES — Former TFC bench boss Ryan Nelsen planned to leave Toronto FC at season’s end even before general manager Tim Bezbatchenko moved to sack his second-year coach, an informed source revealed to the Toronto Sun.

Despite inking what was believed to be a three-year deal that would have taken him through the 2015 season, Nelsen was left disillusioned under top brass he had little respect for at TFC headquarters, going as far as to say certain individuals conspired against him in a bid to take the reins at TFC, the well-placed source added.

Details of Nelsen’s dismissal have continuously seeped out with whispers persisting three months on here at MLS Cup.

Nelsen and most of his staff were shown the door following an Aug. 30 loss to the New England Revolution, which meets the L.A. Galaxy in the league’s title game Sunday afternoon.

During his post-game press conference that day, the 37-year-old tore a strip off Bezbatchenko for putting pressure on the fledgling Reds to perform down the stretch.

While TFC’s top brass claimed Nelsen was canned due to a slump in results, it became abundantly clear that the former New Zealand international wasn’t getting on with those in power positions above him.

Bezbatchenko swiftly shifted Greg Vanney, the club’s former assistant general manager and academy directory, into Nelsen’s vacated role.

Toronto’s GM completed a near-clean sweep of Nelsen’s staff a few months later when TFC equipment manager Malcolm Phillips was let go.

MLS CUP A FAIR FIGHT?

LOS ANGELES — Major League Soccer’s Super Bowl is unfair.

While Sunday’s one-off MLS Cup final between the New England Revolution and L.A. Galaxy will be entertaining, the process that got us to this point should be altered.

The Galaxy won the right to host Sunday’s match as the conference champs with the higher regular-season point total (L.A. finished with 61 points, six more than New England).

But as MLS uses an unbalanced regular-season schedule, there are questions as to whether point total should play such a significant role.

“We can’t control the stories that are out there,” New England coach Jay Heaps said. “All we can control is how we prepare for this game ... What everyone wants to say about it, we can’t control.”

The solution? Have the MLS Cup final be played out over two legs while reducing the conference championship games to a single game at the higher seed.  

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