MLS Cup Notebook: Business as usual despite Donovan's impending farewell
CARSON, Calif. -- A standing-room-only crowd packed the interview room at the StubHub Center on Friday to listen to some of Landon Donovan’s final words as a professional footballer. Amid the expected questions about legacy and emotions, he provided another moment of candor that fans and media have come to expect from one of the United States’ most decorated players.
"I’ve been very excited every day to wake up and go to training," Donovan said. "Candidly, I don’t want it to end right now."
He shrugged off follow-up questions about changing his mind about retirement, but he also said he’s come to peace with the conclusiveness of Sunday's MLS Cup final at the LA Galaxy’s home stadium.
"Early in the week, I sort of processed that," he said. "I gave myself a few days early in the week to really understand the finality of it. Now, it’s a game. We’re at home, playing for a championship, and we’re all so programmed now to just play the next game."
The New England Revolution will be the underdog on the opposite coast. Despite the immensity of the match, both Revs head coach Jay Heaps and Galaxy manager Bruce Arena said they tried to keep their respective team’s routines as normal as possible leading up to the final.
"It has been a normal week. I think we have advantages in that we’ve done this before, and we kind of know the routine," Arena said. "We have experienced players. We have great leadership on the team. We understand what it’s about, and I think our preparation has been real good."
About the build-up concerning Donovan and his retirement, Heaps added: "Our job is to focus on what we need to do. Landon’s an excellent player, a legend, and his legacy will certainly stand on its own. But for us, we’re going into this game preparing ourselves and continuing to stick to our process. … All the other stuff is just noise."
Finally making a final
Some of the talk from players with experience abroad focused on comparing the atmosphere surrounding the MLS Cup final with other important matches overseas. Each player who tackled the issue seemed confident in saying that the build-up to this match has been on par with big games anywhere.
"Everybody can see that everybody’s excited," Revolution midfielder Jermaine Jones said. "You can see what’s going on here, how many people come to the press conference. It’s not normal for an MLS game, so you can see it’s a special day."
Making a final holds some extra meaning for Jones, who was on loan at Blackburn Rovers when his Schalke team won the DFB-Pokal in 2010-11. That run included a thrilling extra-time victory against FC Nuremberg and a 1-0 away win over Bayern Munich in the semifinal before a convincing 5-0 victory over MSV Duisburg in the final.
As a Designated Player signing, Jones was expected to contribute in a major way in New England, giving him some feeling of validation ahead of the match on Sunday.
"After the World Cup, when I decided to play in MLS … I felt the pressure," Jones said. "I know that a lot of people were looking, 'Can he make the difference?' and all that kind of stuff."
Respect between adversaries
More so than most leagues in the world, MLS has a feeling of camaraderie, partly as a result of the single-entity structure and the tribal feel of American soccer in general. That extends well into the final on Sunday, with both coaches speaking of their admiration for each other and each other’s teams.
"We had a nice conversation last time they played here, just talking where our teams were and where they were headed," Arena said. "[Heaps is] a really eager professional. He’s done an outstanding job. He’s had a great mentality and attitude … so it’s not surprising when you take that kind of approach that you’re able to lift your team in difficult times."
Heaps said he sought out Arena’s advice on a couple occasions during the season, which included an eight-game losing streak in the middle of the season, the league’s longest this year.
"There’s not a person or coach I respect more than him," Heaps said. "For me, it’s the kind of guy he is. There have been times during the year where I’ve actually reached out to him to talk about things … and he’s always, always answered it."
The mutual good feeling includes the fact that Galaxy goalkeeper coach Matt Reis and assistant Pat Noonan were Heaps’ teammates in New England in the early 2000s.
"You’ve got two teams that really respect each other," Heaps said. "I think that plays into a great game and a great atmosphere for Sunday."