There is something in the air over Carson, California, and it's not the Goodyear Blimp, which docks at a local landing strip and for years was this Los Angeles bedroom community's hottest attraction. No, on this warm September night there's an energy emanating from the sold-out 27,000-seat Home Depot Center, where the L.A. Galaxy are set to host the New York Red Bulls in what Major League Soccer's PR machine has frothily billed as "the biggest game of the year." Some might say, in fact, that it's the biggest regular-season game in league history.
For the first time in years, the league's two prime media markets have top teams, and tonight is only the second time that five so-called designated players—basically, big names who aren't subject to the MLS salary cap—have been scheduled to compete on the same field. The revivified Red Bulls franchise arrived with two new stars, Thierry Henry, the all-time top scorer for the French national team, and superstar Mexican midfielder Rafael Marquez, as well as their all-time leading scorer, Colombian Juan Pablo Angel. The Galaxy, for the first time since November 2009, will start the great David Beckham, back after tearing his Achilles tendon. But the evening's biggest attraction, by count of souvenir jerseys weaving through the crowd outside the stadium, is a sprightly American with a receding hairline: 28-year-old Galaxy captain Landon Donovan, wearer of the number 10, given to a team's most respected player.
In the stands, it feels like a soccer game in Europe. The Galaxy's two supporter sections chant and bounce and sing and pound on drums with a joyful insanity that spills over into adjoining seats. Because they're at this game! Because Becks is back! And because they have Donovan—and New York doesn't.
U.S. soccer fanatics have been enamored of Donovan since at least 2002, when the relatively unknown 20-year-old was the breakout star of the U.S. World Cup team, named by FIFA as the best young player in the tournament for helping the U.S. reach the quarterfinals for the first time since 1930. Ever since, Donovan has carried the national team and his MLS squads to such a degree that many consider him the best American ever to play the game. And this was before last year's World Cup, when, in the waning moments of a frustrating do-or-die game against Algeria, Donovan pounced on a rebound and drilled home the winning goal, joyously belly-flopping into the corner of the field—and into the hearts of the millions of Americans watching a World Cup match for the first time.
It wasn't the most beautiful goal you'll ever see, but the dramatic timing and the fact that it was scored by the team's most recognizable name made it one of the great moments in American sports history. Almost immediately, people began to refer to it as the Miracle on Grass, and a compilation video of people across the U.S. reacting in orgiastic glee became a viral sensation, garnering some three million views and counting on YouTube.
New Galaxy fans paying close attention tonight in Carson will notice something that serious soccer observers have long appreciated: that Donovan can not only run forever but can also, at any moment, locate and make tangible that hoary sportscaster cliché, the mystical "extra gear." Late in a game, when other players have lost a step, Donovan is just as quick as he was in the first minute.
And so, if you replay the clip of Donovan's historic goal, you will see him sprinting more than half the field to catch up to the action, to be in the right place, fresh and sharp amid beleaguered Algerian defenders, more than 90 minutes after the first whistle. However unspectacular it may appear, it was the moment Donovan had been preparing for his entire career—and, most likely, the moment that will forever define him.