About 4,000 miles from the United States national team, one of the most decorated men in American soccer history took to the pitch.
Instead of awaiting 46,000 fans at Brazil’s Arena Pernambuco for the U.S. game against Germany, Landon Donovan was in front of about 3,000 fans at Koka Booth Stadium, playing against the Carolina RailHawks in the fifth round of the U.S. Open Cup as a member of the L.A. Galaxy
With the RailHawks’ regular field unavailable due to resodding, Donovan left the locker room and walked through the stands – the only way down to the field, which was surrounded by temporary bleachers on one side, a small, grassy hill dotted with people behind one of the goals, trees behind the other and a modest permanent bleacher.
No, it wasn’t Brazil by any means. But it was soccer.
“I enjoy it,” Donovan said. “I can’t speak for everybody, but I enjoy it. It’s different.”
It also wasn’t the result the Galaxy was hoping for when the MLS club decided to bring its best lineup – a different look from their previous U.S. Open Cup losses to Carolina in 2012 and 2013. But thanks to a stellar night from RailHawks goalkeeper Scott Goodwin and an overtime goal from Daniel Jackson in the 105th minute, Carolina won 1-0, eliminating the Galaxy from the tournament for the third consecutive year.
“I think 99 times out of 100 we win that game,” Donovan said. “They had everything go their way tonight. They played well, they defended well, their goalie had one of the best performances that I’ve ever seen. They got the goal that they needed.
“Everyone has seen or been part of games like that in soccer. It’s a crazy, cruel game sometimes. That’s the way it went tonight.”
Donovan, who was held out of the starting lineup due to what assistant coach Dave Sarachan referred to as a couple of little injuries, entered the game in the 64th minute, and he spent most of his time running at the RailHawks’ back line.
An overzealous RailHawks fan, with a fedora topping his grey hair, attempted to heckle the U.S. star with calls of “Who are ya? Who are ya?”
He received his answer from a young, high-pitched voice in the crowd: “That’s Landon Donovan!”
His entrance brought the second-biggest cheer of the night (behind Jackson’s goal), and he was a sought-after pregame autograph as he paused to sign for a few kids on his way back through the stands. On the pitch, he was intense – when a ball drilled RailHawks midfielder Ty Shipalane in the kidney, Donovan screamed, ‘Play! Play! Play!’ drawing out the “A,” as Shipalane withered on the ground.
In the 83rd minute, he has a point-blank look at the goal. But Goodwin, who led North Carolina to the 2011 NCAA championship, managed to get enough of his hand on the ball to deflect it.
“You’re watching the ball, scrambling around, and you have no time to think about it during the game,” Goodwin said of the play. “I kind of didn’t really think about it until five or 10 minutes later and I was like, ‘I think that was Donovan.’ ”
It was, and with that deflection went the Galaxy’s best chance to score. Donovan recorded two of the Galaxy’s 31 shots, eight of which were stopped by Goodwin.
“The ultimate equalizer in soccer is scoring goals are so difficult,” Donovan said. “We played a perfect game, expect for hitting the net.”
After his media obligations were finished, Donovan headed toward the team bus. Awaiting him was a mob scene, fans packed several rows deep along metal barriers. He stuck one of his earbuds in his ear, drifted to the right, and started signing. In front of him, a fan several rows back held up a handmade poster.
It read: Donovan You Should Be In Brazil, Not Cary!