For seven months, 10 days and 21 hours, Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder Guillermo (Pando) Ramirez was the ultimate example of the man who couldn't shoot straight. Even in a sport in which failure is so common that near misses are applauded, Ramirez's futility stood out. So reliable were his shanks, so Sisyphean his struggles, that one media wise guy started the Pando Ramirez Goal Watch, a weekly tally of the Guatemalan's epic misery. Sixty-four times Ramirez had launched a shot this year. Not once had he connected during the run of play--an unprecedented feat in MLS's 10-year history--until Sunday, naturally, when he scored the most important goal of the 2005 season ¬∂ Ramirez's extra-time strike, a blistering right-footed volley, gave the Galaxy a 1-0 win over the New England Revolution and its second MLS Cup title in four years, sparking a near-orgasmic celebration on the field at Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas. "It was incredible," the Sideshow Bob--coiffed Ramirez explained in the afterglow of L.A.'s victory. "You can't even describe how you feel when you score a goal of this magnitude." Or, in his case, any goal at all. "If you had asked me which guy was going to score out of the 20 on our team, he would have been my last choice," Galaxy forward Landon Donovan said in a champagne-soaked locker room afterward. "I almost had a heart attack."
It was just as shocking that the Galaxy had even reached the MLS Cup final. The team finished in the bottom third of the regular-season standings, slouching to a 13-13-6 mark, and squeaked into the playoffs with the ninth-best record in the 12-team league. But then L.A. got hot, knocking off the Colorado Rapids and the two top seeds (the San Jose Earthquakes and the Revolution) in its four-game playoff run.
Nobody could deny that L.A.'s triumph made a mockery of the 32-game regular season, not even Donovan, who'd prefer to see only the top two regular-season teams qualify for the championship game. "I don't necessarily agree with the way our playoffs are structured, but that's the way it is," he says. "You can fight tooth and nail throughout the year to try and get as high as you can in the standings, but at the end of the day it's about getting ready for four playoff games. When it mattered, we came to play and the other teams didn't."
By winning his third MLS title in five seasons (his previous two came as a member of the Earthquakes), the 23-year-old Donovan burnished his credentials as the Derek Jeter of American soccer. But while Big Game Lanny is an apt nickname--Donovan's four playoff goals gave him an MLS-record 14 in his career--it also carries a hint of rebuke for a star who admits that he sometimes coasted during the regular season. Then again, the playoffs marked one of the few times during a busy World Cup qualifying year in which Donovan could focus entirely on MLS. "Most seasons Landon is playing twice as many games as everyone else because he's called into every single national-team camp," says Revolution forward Taylor Twellman, this year's league MVP. "That will always take its toll. But when he's not tired, he's the best player in the league."
MLS officials certainly wouldn't mind if Donovan and the 25-year-old Twellman developed an L.A.-Boston rivalry resembling that of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. It helps that Donovan and Twellman are young Americans in the prime of their careers, who don't plan on jetting off to the more lucrative European leagues anytime soon. Both started their professional careers by riding the bench in Germany--Donovan for Bayer Leverkusen, Twellman for 1860 Munich--and both have returned Stateside to thrive on the soccer field and earn mainstream recognition. (Donovan is a fixture of the Tiger Beat set, and Boston gossip columns often identify Twellman as the "kicker cutie.") "You could see Taylor being a soccer version of Tom Brady," says MLS commissioner Don Garber. "He's got a presence, and we'd love to see him stay in this league."
Neither player took over Sunday's dreary final, MLS's first dud of a title game since 2002, as physical play and constipated attacks combined to produce an MLS Cup record 10 yellow cards and few scoring chances. In a hard-fought Cup final one small miscue can make the difference, and it finally happened in the 107th minute when Revs winger James Riley muffed a clearance over his own end line to give the Galaxy a corner kick. (As if he knew what was coming, Riley looked skyward in disgust.) New England goalie Matt Reis punched Donovan's tricky outswinger directly to Ramirez, who one-timed an immaculate 18-yard laser through a thicket of Revolution defenders for the game-winner.
That redemptive moment was, in a way, a fitting symbol for a league that has rallied since contracting two teams in 2002 but still faces numerous challenges. On the one hand the final took place in a brand-new, $80 million soccer stadium filled to a capacity (21,193) that's well-suited to the size of MLS's slowly growing fan base. On the other hand the league's stadium boom--by 2007 nine teams are expected to be playing in soccer-only venues--has diverted money from the task of investing in better players. MLS spent more than $40 million on player acquisitions and salaries in 2000 but spent one-third less than that this season, according to a high-ranking league source. U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena and officials in the Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns four MLS teams, argue that it's time investors started loosening their purse strings again. The signing of Donovan to a five-year, $4.5 million deal last March was a good start.
Indeed, despite Ramirez's remarkable goal, there was little doubt that Donovan loomed largest over the MLS postseason. As Big Game Lanny looked forward last week to a Caribbean vacation, he chewed over whether he'd be Magic or Larry in the Donovan-Twellman rivalry. "I'd better be Magic," he said. "He's my idol. You can't put us in the same sentence, though. Not yet."
Not yet. But at just 23, with three rings and counting, he's clearly on his way.
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The Galaxy's Herculez Gomez (far left) and Donovan (10) found few openings, but the shank-inclined Ramirez (17) ended his epic drought with the winner.
MLS's fan base is growing; now the league must invest in players.