FC Dallas' Kevin Hartman surely would have been Major League Soccer's Goalkeeper of the Year had he not missed the final six weeks with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee, the product of Thierry Henry's mindless goal celebration in a Sept. 16 clash at New York.
Hartman has perhaps been the premier figure in Dallas' run to Sunday evening's Western Conference final against the Galaxy at Home Depot Center (ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes, 6 p.m.). He solidified the defense and posted a 10-1-8 record with nine shutouts and a league-record 0.62 goals-against average as the Hoops tied the MLS mark with just four regular-season defeats, then toppled Real Salt Lake -- the consensus choice as MLS's best side -- in the first round of the playoffs.
It's been a career-rejuvenating campaign for the 36-year-old veteran, a local product (Palos Verdes and Peninsula high schools, Cal State Dominguez Hills and UCLA) who was a fan favorite in 10 seasons, from 1997 to 2006, with the Galaxy.
He was unceremoniously dumped by the Kansas City Wizards during preseason last spring, was offered a backup job by FC Dallas coach Schellas Hyndman just before the season kicked off and wrested the starting job from Dario Sala by the start of May. The Hoops soon started on their single-season league-record 19-game unbeaten streak and now stand 90 minutes from the club's first MLS Cup title-game appearance.
How is it to be back in L.A.?
It's good to get home and see family and friends, and you can't beat the weather. This is a nice time of year to be here. … But it's funny, because yesterday I started driving around, and I started forgetting where the streets are. And you know that Coffee Bean on Hawthorne [Boulevard]? I was like, “Where is this Coffee Bean? Did they move it?”
You've always had a good relationship with L.A. fans. What are your thoughts on your legacy here -- and did you think you'd spend your entire career with the Galaxy?
I always felt that they treated me very, very fairly, and I would always try to go out of my way to be decent to them and show them that same level of respect. They've always been supportive of me, even maybe after I left. I think this will be the game where they'll have the most difficulty in terms of supporting me. Because this is probably the most important game I've had [against the Galaxy] since I left.
I was very, very content to get to play in one team as long as I did, and I never took that for granted. To be on one team in professional sports for 10 years is not something that happens very often. …
I think you always take a bit of culture and a little something from the fans and your teammates, but some of those things are never going to be the same. When I was playing here, [the Galaxy's colors] were green and gold. They've rebranded. And teammates -- I think only Landon [Donovan] is still here. Todd Dunivant left, then he came back. And Jovan [Kirovski]. … It's obviously a bit different now.
Was your performance and success this season vindication after Kansas City released you?
Not really. I think the biggest thing for me was just trying to reward Schellas and FC Dallas for stepping up at an awkward time and picking me up and giving me the opportunity to continue doing something I really love doing. I don't really work that way. It's nice to be able to work hard and have things pay off for you, but I try to keep all that negativity out of my system as much as I possibly can.
Do you think this has been your best season in MLS?
My numbers are the best they've ever been, significantly, but who's to say with goalkeepers. I think it's one of those those things that is difficult to gauge.
I certainly feel like it was a good year in terms of what I was able to get done, in terms of organizing the defense. I think that the team has been very good. The guys have been willing to work and maybe listen to some of the information I have to relay. … Honestly, I would say it's probably one of my better years.
What is it that tells you you're going to win Sunday's game?
I don't think you ever … I mean, you go in, and you prepare as well as you can. I think we're confident in ourselves because we've come through a bunch of difficulties this season, and we've really gained confidence through some of the trials and tribulations we've experienced. Individuals continually step up on a game-to-game basis.
I just really feel like it's not any way I feel like [the Galaxy is inferior]. I'm just pretty confident with the group of guys I'm with right now.”