Wednesday, May 11, 2011
By Dave Zeitlin
CHESTER, Pa. When Landon Donovans name was announced at PPL Park last October, there was a booming cheer typically reserved for Philadelphia Union players.
The display of affection was not unwarranted. Months earlier, Donovan had cemented himself in American soccer lore with a dramatic stoppage-time goal that launched the United States into the knockout round of the 2010 World Cup. The end of the MLS season was, in many ways, a celebration tour for the Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder, his stop in Chester included.
I saw a little bit of a change, Donovan admitted Tuesday when asked about the reception from visiting fans. I think theres more respect, which is nice. But at the same time, that only lasts so long. So my guess is this year people are going to forget about 2010 and get back to being passionate fans for their teams, which is good.
In other words, when Donovan and the rest of the Galaxy invade PPL Park for tonights game against the Union (7:30 p.m., The Comcast Network), he expects to be in hostile territory.
He wouldnt want it any other way, either.
For us to play in soccer-specific stadiums and to play in front of real crowds what we call real games makes a big difference for us, Donovan said. As players, we all enjoy it.
Unfortunately for Union fans, theyll have to save their taunts for the Galaxys other big-name superstar, David Beckham, for another day. With the Galaxy playing three games in a one-week span, head coach Bruce Arena opted to leave the Englishman back in Los Angeles for tonights game.
Were sorry about that, Arena offered. We didnt put together the schedule. Our job is to keep our players healthy and place the right players on the field each and every game to give us the best chance of winning.
Donovan reiterated his coachs point, pointing to the rigors of the schedule while slightly sympathizing with the fans that wont get to see the most famous soccer player in the world in person.
Some are disappointed, some are probably happy that hes not here because obviously he helps our team, Donovan said. Its part of sports, especially in our country when you have to travel the way you do cross-country for a game like this. You cant expect someone of his age to be able to play three games in a week.
Its unfortunate for people who paid to come see him but its part of sports.
For the Western Conference-leading Galaxy (4-2-4), the absence of Beckham, a world-renowned set piece specialist, will hurt against an improved Union squad whose main weakness this season has been giving up set-piece goals.
Donovan and Beckham known as much for their frosty relationship in the past as for they are for leading the Galaxy to victories have also been playing well together of late. Donovan leads the club with four goals while Beckham is tied for second in the league with five assists.
We see the game the same way, Donovan said. I know when he has the ball where I need to be, and he knows where to put it. We know how to gel and mesh together on field. When hes not here, part of our game hurts.
Yet, even if Beckham had been in town, Donovan recognizes the Galaxy still would have had their work cut out for them against the Union (4-2-1), who with a win over L.A. would climb into first place in the Eastern Conference.
Theyre a much better team much better than last year, said Donovan, the fifth leading goal-scorer in MLS history. I knew manager Peter Nowak was going to get it right, that it would just take time. Ive been impressed. Ive watched a lot of their games this year. They have the same core group of guys that were here last year and they made some really good improvements.
Theyre still not where they want to be. I know a Peter Nowak-coached team will eventually be a much more offensive-minded team. I know theyve gotten the defensive part right and theyre a very good team right now.
As Donovan remembers from last seasons game at PPL Park, the Union fans are real good, too.
And while there may be more respect directed at him since the World Cup and while there are some people who flood the gate only to get a glimpse of Beckham Donovan is happy to report that he still feels like hes in hostile territory when he comes to PPL Park and other stadiums around the country.
For him, that, perhaps more than anything else, signifies the growth of Major League Soccer. And in no city is the sport growing as much as it is in Philadelphia.
Growing up, Id always hear about Philly sports fans, Donovan said. We were all expecting the same with the Union and they havent disappointed. Ive played with a number of guys from Philly and they have the same passion and enthusiasm for Philly sports.
Its been good to have a team like that in our league. We need more passion like that.
Email Dave Zeitlin at email@example.com.