Marquee Matchup Can Chicago's Carlos Bocanegra stop San Jose's red-hot Landon Donovan in the MLS title game?

November 24, 2003

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.

COLOR PHOTO: HOWARD C. SMITH/ICON SMI (BOCANEGRA) FOOT-TO-FOOT Bocanegra (left) thinks he can handle Donovan. COLOR PHOTO: ELIOT J. SCHECHTER/GETTY IMAGES (DONOVAN) [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: JIM ROGASH/AP (NOONAN) Noonan

Shooting for 2006

Three young MLS players caught the eye of the U.S. national
coach

When the U.S. begins qualifying for World Cup 2006 next year,
look for several players from the 2002 team to return, including
midfielder John O'Brien, defender Eddie Pope and goalkeeper Brad
Friedel. But expect some new faces in the mix too. When asked
about players that he found intriguing late in the MLS season,
U.S. coach Bruce Arena mentioned three: New England Revolution
rookie forward Pat Noonan, 23, and two San Jose Earthquakes,
midfielder Brian Mullan, 25, and first-year forward Jamil Walker,
22.

"He's a walking advertisement for the league," Arena says of
Walker. "At the beginning of the year this kid was raw and not
ready to play, and it's pretty noticeable that he's made
considerable improvement." --G.W.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)