SEATTLE -- Long considered the best player in the U.S., Landon Donovan is now the best player in Major League Soccer.
The Los Angeles Galaxy forward and six-time national player of the year was named the MLS most valuable player on Thursday for the first time in his career.
Despite all his accolades as the leader of the U.S. national team, Donovan had yet to be recognized by his own league until this season when he helped the Galaxy race to the MLS Cup final and overcome some of his own off-the-field distractions.
Los Angeles will face Real Salt Lake for the MLS title on Sunday night in Seattle. Donovan beat out FC Dallas' Jeff Cunningham, the league's goal scoring leader with a career-best 17 goals, and New England midfielder Shalrie Joseph for the award.
"I think rewarding is the right word," Donovan said. "We've worked very hard to get where we are with this team. Sometimes you almost feel bad that we keep winning awards and keep getting this and that. When you think about it, we deserve it. This team has worked really hard, but if we don't win Sunday these things aren't going to mean a whole lot."
It's already been the longest and most trying year of Donovan's career.
Donovan, 27, was instrumental in the Americans' successful qualifying campaign for the 2010 World Cup and its trek to the Confederations Cup championship match, large factors in him winning an unprecedented sixth Honda Player of the Year Award last month.
He scored 12 goals in the regular season and added six assists for the Galaxy, despite missing a month of the season in helping lead the U.S. to the Confederations Cup final. That total followed up on last season when Donovan scored a league-high 20 goals, but missed out on the MVP award as Los Angeles finished last in the Western Conference.
This year, Donovan was the leader. Los Angeles was the best team in the West, overcoming a remarkable 11 ties in its first 13 games to take the top spot and qualify for the playoffs for the first time since its run to the title in 2005 as the No. 8 seed.
"He's grown on the field as a player. He's a more mature consistent player, but his role off the field with this team has been perhaps even better, remarkable," Galaxy coach Bruce Arena said recently. "The things he did to help build this team to have the right kind of team chemistry, to be a leader ... Landon was consistently here every day and taking the responsibility of a captain. He's been doing a fantastic job."
And it wasn't just the regular season where Donovan excelled. Donovan scored in the opener of the Galaxy's first-round series against rival Chivas USA, then added a penalty kick goal versus Chivas to help clinch the playoff victory in the second-leg.
In the conference final last Friday against Houston, Donovan's overtime penalty kick goal cemented the 2-0 victory and a spot in the league championship game. He now has 17 career playoff goals, most in league history.
Donovan's 2009 season grabbed plenty of attention for what happened away from his time on the field with the Galaxy. He spent three months on loan to German powerhouse Bayern Munich and was not offered a full contract. His marriage, to actress Bianca Kajlich, dissolved.
And he was a major figure in Grant Wahl's "The Beckham Experiment," a book chronicling and critical of David Beckham's first two seasons with the Galaxy. Donovan criticized Beckham's leadership and effort in the book, and he apologized to the English star for airing his thoughts in public.
Since Beckham returned to the Galaxy from a loan deal to Italy's AC Milan, he and Donovan developed a strong partnership that has helped fuel their run to the league championship game.
"I can look myself in the mirror this year and say I really worked hard and earned this and I'm proud of it," Donovan said. "It's one thing to be voted a most valuable player by the media or be named an All-star by the fans, but when your peers vote for you it means a little bit more."