Midfielder David Beckham embraces forward Landon Donovan as they celebrate… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)
Few teams had more reason — or opportunity — to pack it in and play for next season than the Galaxy did this year.
Nearly halfway through the Major Soccer League season, the team, missing four of its starters, was buried in the conference cellar. The Galaxy climbed out to finish fourth in the Western Conference, then had to win a wild-card game just to get into the playoffs.
And once there it found itself trailing time and again.
Yet the Galaxy never quit and Saturday that resilience was rewarded one more time when the team rallied from a one-goal halftime deficit to beat the Houston Dynamo, 3-1, and win its second consecutive MLS Cup before a record crowd of 30,510 at the Home Depot Center.
"It kind of epitomizes our season," defender Todd Dunivant said. "They score first, and we have to come back. Having to come back and battle back, overcome adversity, it was a microcosm of our whole season."
That adversity started before the season when the Galaxy lost defender Omar Gonzalez for 18 games to knee surgery. Saturday Gonzalez scored his second goal of the year, then set up another to win game most-valuable-player honors.
The adversity continued when goalkeeper Josh Saunders was enrolled in the league's substance abuse and behavior health program, missing six weeks while being treated for an undisclosed problem. Saturday Saunders made two huge saves in the closing minutes to protect the Galaxy's lead.
And the season ended in a most unexpected way when the Galaxy, frustrated during the run of play, saw Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane convert second-half penalty kicks to turn a tie game into a comfortable victory.
In 16 previous MLS Cups, there had been just two penalty kicks awarded, only one of which resulted in a score. The Galaxy got two in less than 30 minutes Saturday.
"It's a little surreal, to be honest," said Donovan, whose MLS Cup win was the fifth of his career and third with the Galaxy. "In any sport, to repeat, it's really hard to do. The playoff was run was great, but what got us here was the turnaround in July."
And that started with David Beckham, who played his last MLS game Saturday but who, in early summer, was trying to hold together a listless team missing both Donovan and Keane to international duty.
"I got a few phone calls from players, from the coaches, saying that something had changed," Donovan remembers. "And the overwhelming comment was David's demeanor was influencing everybody. He decided at that point that he was going to take control.
"And we all bought into it."
It proved to be a good buy, with the team losing only two of its final 16 regular-season games. But the Galaxy still had one final deficit to overcome Saturday after Calen Carr's score in the 44th minute gave Houston a 1-0 halftime lead.
When Carr limped off with a leg injury early in the second half, however, the Dynamo's momentum stalled and a minute later Gonzalez skied above two defenders to head in a long cross from Juninho to tie the score.
Another Gonzalez header in the 64th minute touched off a wild goal-mouth scramble that ended with Ricardo Clark sticking his hand in front of a Keane shot, drawing a penalty. Donovan turned that mistake into a goal seconds later, giving the Galaxy the lead and giving Donovan a league-record five goals in Cup finals while extending his MLS record for postseason goals to 22.
A questionable foul call on Houston keeper Tally Hall in stoppage time set up another penalty kick and Keane took this one, burying it to end any hope of a Dynamo comeback.
"Thank God I had 35 years under my belt to be able to deal with this," said Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena, who called the victory — his fourth in an MLS Cup — among the most rewarding in his Hall of Fame career. "I've been in organizations where they'd kick you out [for] some of the stuff we had this year.
"A lot of guys had to dig deep and really figure out what was important and how to focus."
And on Saturday they got it right.