CARSON, Calif. — To boast the elite services of David Beckham, Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan, the Los Angeles Galaxy shelled out more than $12 million during the 2011 Major League Soccer season. But when the club's three designated players were tested on the grandest of American soccer stages Sunday, they turned out to be worth every penny.
Playing under the bright lights of the 16th MLS Cup, Donovan capped off an exquisite attacking sequence facilitated by Beckham and Keane with a 72nd-minute tally, giving the Galaxy a 1-0 win over the Houston Dynamo at the Home Depot Center and the franchise's third league title.
"We're the Galaxy — we're the biggest club in this country, in the league," Beckham said. "And we're proud tonight."
The evening was particularly vindicating for Donovan, who missed a penalty kick in the tiebreaker of Los Angeles' 2009 MLS Cup loss to an underdog Real Salt Lake side. With the goal, Donovan further cemented his place as arguably the greatest figure in league history, winning his fourth championship and becoming just the second player to claim MLS Cup Most Valuable Player honors twice.
"I for the last month have been, like the rest of these guys, so determined to win," Donovan said. "I didn't care who scored, I didn't care if it was an own goal, I didn't care how the ball went in — I just wanted it to go in. I mean that wholeheartedly. Winning feels so good. The goals come and go, but the moment when the whistle blew is what I'll remember."
With the win, the Galaxy became the first team to win an MLS Cup with a designated player, a five-year-old provision, appropriately nicknamed "the Beckham rule," that limits the salary cap hit caused by highly paid stars.
For the 36-year-old Englishman, the triumph polishes the inconsistent legacy he has carved since arriving in the league amid much fanfare in 2007. Beckham revealed after the match he played through a hamstring injury suffered in training this week, and as Donovan put it, the way he endured the pain "inspired me a lot" and "forced a lot of us to just get on with it."
While Beckham, whose contract expires at season's end, has been rumored to return to Europe or retire, the Galaxy supporters made their opinion known during the postgame celebration, chanting, "We want Beckham!"
"I need to sit back and relax and enjoy this moment and then decide what I'm going to do," Beckham said. "I might talk in past tense every now and again, but that doesn't mean I'm not coming back."
For a while, it seemed as if the heavily favored Galaxy might not break through against a Houston side that finished 18 points behind Los Angeles in the regular season and was playing without league MVP runner-up Brad Davis (quadriceps strain).
Control of the match clearly belonged to the Galaxy. Los Angeles' offense largely flowed through the right-sided combination of Donovan and overlapping right back Sean Franklin, while Beckham and Keane caused their own share of trouble as well.
But for all the forward-pressing possession and attacking interchange the Galaxy managed, Houston center backs Geoff Cameron and Bobby Boswell were more than up to task, stepping up to halt attacks in their infancy and tracking back to make last-ditch clearances.
Los Angeles appeared to finally find net in the 57th minute when Keane ran onto a lofted ball from Beckham and slipped his shot past Houston goalkeeper Tally Hall. The offside flag, however, was up.
Moments later, Galaxy coach Bruce Arena made the first tactical adjustment of the night, replacing ineffective striker Adam Cristman with midfielder Chris Birchall and sliding Donovan up top.
Not long after that, Beckham flicked a header to Keane, who evaded Boswell and slid a pass to Donovan. As Hall charged forward, the Galaxy captain chipped his shot over the charging goalkeeper and into the back of the net.
There's a reason Arena now has a league-best three championships to his name.
"Bruce is so good at analyzing the game and figuring out what we need," Donovan said. "And it paid off."
The Galaxy's campaign puts Los Angeles in the discussion for being the greatest club MLS has ever seen. Los Angeles became the sixth team to claim the Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup in the same season, and the team also earned passage to next spring's CONCACAF Champions League knockout stage — balanced success on the domestic and international stage unprecedented in MLS.
"To have the regular season we had and then throw in the CONCACAF Champions League and then win the MLS Cup is a hell of an accomplishment," Arena said. "It really is."
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