- Jeff Carlisle, Soccer
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CARSON, Calif. -- What happens in a soccer match is often held up as a metaphor for what occurs off the field. But as the scene unfolded in the Los Angeles Galaxy locker room last Sunday, the opposite was true.
The Galaxy had just completed their 3-0 rout of the Seattle Sounders in the first leg of the Western Conference final. And while most of the Sounders' attention was lavished on L.A.'s stars -- David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane -- it was Mike Magee, a phantom menace if there ever was one, who delivered one of his patented playoff sucker punches.
The Galaxy broke on the counterattack in the 64th minute with both Beckham and Keane involved in the build-up. Yet it was Magee who finished things off, slotting home Sean Franklin's perfect pass. The goal not only gave L.A. a 2-0 lead but further wore away Seattle's resolve, helping to create the kind of daylight that teams love to take into the second leg of a two-game series.
Afterwards in the Galaxy locker room, not much had changed. There was Beckham, boxed in by the assembled media throng. Ghosting off to the side was Magee, passing by in relative anonymity.
A modest crowd eventually did gather around Magee, and with good reason. His tally was his third of the playoffs to give him eight goals in 15 postseason appearances with L.A., a number made all the more astonishing by the fact he's scored just 13 goals in 95 regular-season appearances for the Galaxy. Yet as Magee discussed the match, finding an explanation for his ability to deliver when the lights are brightest proved just as difficult as stopping him on the field.
"I've got nothing," he said with a shrug. "Absolutely nothing."
Without question the presence of L.A.'s three designated players is a significant factor, bound to be the focus of an opponent's defensive attention. "This time of year, you need guys who can make special plays at both ends of the field and Mike gives us another option at the attacking end of the field," said Donovan prior to last Sunday's match. "If teams are clued in on a few of us, he's a guy they have to worry about, and when they forget about him, he makes them pay."
Yet health and maturity, not to mention Magee's considerable talent, have played a role in his success, as well. Magee has long had the kind of ability to be dangerous around goal dating back to his time with the U.S. U-17 national team. It was back in 2001 that Magee paired up with one Eddie Johnson -- who will be sporting Seattle colors when the two teams square off in Sunday's second leg -- to lead the U-17 attack. Johnson was the forward who stayed up high while Magee lurked underneath.
"Magee was just one of those players who was cheeky in how he played, just made great runs and for me, he was tactically above the age at the time," said John Ellinger, who managed that U-17 side and until recently was an assistant with F.C. Dallas. "He was an extremely smart player in terms of his positioning and technically sound."
Magee went on to be selected fourth overall by the team then known as the MetroStars in the 2003 MLS SuperDraft, but after some early success he discovered just how much of a grind being a pro soccer player could be. The bad habits that often afflict young players were exposed, and Magee had to adapt.
"It makes you grow pretty quickly," said Magee of entering MLS as a teenager. "Going from club soccer where you could walk around the field, score a couple of goals, and have that be enough, that wasn’t the case [in the pros]. It's so much faster and so much stronger; you have to do the little things to stay on the field which took me a couple of years to realize."
A series of knee injuries played a part in Magee's metamorphosis, with 2006 and 2007 essentially lost years. But despite enjoying something of a bounce-back season in 2008, Magee's career was at a crossroads. His contract was up and it wasn't clear what the future held.
But then Bruce Arena came to Magee’s rescue. The L.A. manager had seen Magee up close during his stint managing the Red Bulls and obtained the versatile attacker prior to the 2009 season. Magee entered the season fully aware of what was at stake. "The day I got a phone call from Bruce, it was more or less, 'Let's see what happens,'" Magee said. "It wasn't like I was going there thinking I was going to kill it... I didn't know if it was going to be my last year, but essentially just give it one last shot and see where I'm at with a fresh start. Obviously it was a blessing."
Healthy at last, Magee has been a steady contributor ever since, even deputizing in goal during a memorable game against San Jose in 2011. But it's been his finishing in the playoffs the past four seasons that has caught the eye. An optimistic approach to exploiting opportunities on the break has been significant in Magee's success, one that wouldn't be possible without the pervasive team-first ethos exhibited by L.A.'s stars.
"There are times when I'll make some kind of hopeful runs where I'm running in and trying to get my head on a cross and obviously I can't back, and Landon or Robbie will cover for me," Magee said. "It's not like I’m asking them to, they just do it. A lot of teams I've played guys haven't done that and then it hurts the team because then maybe I stop making those runs, and I won't get those goals because I’m scared about my defensive responsibilities."
L.A. will be looking to finish off its work from the first leg this Sunday in Seattle and Magee is all too aware of what the Sounders are capable of at home: They won two games by a combined score of 6-0.
"We can't sit back," he said. "This is a team that if we go there thinking that 3-0 is good enough, we'll be proven that it won't be good enough."
With Magee in epic form, chances are it will be.