History is a relative term, especially when the topic is a sports league in its eighth year, yet we can confirm that Major League Soccer has had its most memorable postseason ever—no small feat, considering the championship game won't be played until Sunday. In three weeks the soccer gods have delivered to long-suffering U.S. footy fans 1) the greatest game in MLS history, featuring a heart-stopping five-goal rally; 2) the most important player signing in league history, expected to occur on Nov. 19 when 14-year-old American prodigy Freddy Adu was to join D.C. United; and 3) the ascent of the most electrifying player in MLS history.
That would be Landon Donovan, the 21-year-old San Jose Earthquakes forward whose crunch-time heroics (the deciding assist and then a goal in two sudden-death playoff wins) have forced foes to argue that despite those exploits, he's not a comic-book character. "Landon's a handful," says Chicago Fire defender Carlos Bocanegra, whose team will meet the Quakes in the MLS Cup at The Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. "You've got to concentrate on him because he can slip away so easily. But he's not Superman. And if people think he is, then I've got some kryptonite for him."
Of all the individual battles in Sunday's game between the league's top two regular-season teams, none will be more compelling than Donovan against Bocanegra. It's a delicious showdown: the World Cup golden boy against the reigning MLS defender of the year, the light-footed speedster against the bruising former defensive back for the Alta Loma ( Calif.) High football team. The 24-year-old Bocanegra has had a breakout year in 2003, emerging as a mainstay in the U.S. national team's central defense while marshaling Chicago's back line. It's no accident that with Bocanegra in the lineup, the Fire has lost only two times in 22 games this season.
Donovan, too, has come of age. "At midseason I was getting burned out, but at some point you have to take a look at yourself and be a man," he says. "You can't take plays off and moan about things." A five-goal explosion over two games in September thrust Donovan to the front of the MVP race and set the stage for the Quakes' playoff run.
Catch Bocanegra and Donovan in MLS while you can, for neither may stick around much longer. Bocanegra's contract expires following the season, while Donovan could leave after 2004. The uncertainty makes raising the Rothenberg Trophy on Sunday all the more important for both players. If the Fire wins, it will complete an unprecedented treble, having already won the U.S. Open Cup knockout tournament and the Supporters Shield awarded to the MLS team with the best regular-season record (15-7-8).
If San Jose triumphs, the Earthquakes will validate their first-round playoff miracle, in which they erased a four-goal deficit to eliminate the Los Angeles Galaxy. It was Donovan's remarkable vision and stamina that led to his assist on the series-clinching goal. "Landon runs around the field so much, defenders get tired," Bocanegra says. "Then in the late stages of a game, he still has that burst."
That's what happened in last Saturday's Western Conference final, in which Donovan slipped free in the 117th minute to score the deciding goal in San Jose's 3-2 win against the Kansas City Wizards. As he doffed his jersey, Chastain-style, to celebrate, it was hard not to think: Bocanegra better place that kryptonite order.