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Best for Last A rare goal by an unsung midfielder lifted San Jose to the MLS title

When Earthquakes midfielder Richard Mulrooney found himself 10
yards to the right of the Fire goal in the second half of
Sunday's MLS Cup at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., he
knew what to do: He looked for striker Landon Donovan. "I don't
know who in their right mind wouldn't," Mulrooney says. "But then
I saw that he was moving away, taking defenders away from me."
Having a clear shot at the net was an unfamiliar experience for
Mulrooney, who hadn't scored all season, but he deftly placed a
right-footed shot inside the far post for the decisive goal in
San Jose's 4-2 triumph.

While the 21-year-old Donovan tallied twice and earned game MVP
honors in the Quakes' second Cup victory in three seasons,
Mulrooney might have gained the most from the triumph, affirming
his place among the top U.S. players with a stellar afternoon. He
stymied striker Damani Ralph on a timely tackle in the first half
and provided support against DaMarcus Beasley's runs in the
second. As Donovan puts it, "Richie's a rock."

Mulrooney, 27, has been a steady performer since San Jose drafted
him out of Creighton in 1999. He moved from right to central
midfielder after his rookie season and proved to be an excellent
defender and capable distributor. "I never really broke into the
youth national teams growing up [in Memphis]," says Mulrooney,
"but I always had confidence I could play at that level. It was a
matter of being consistent and showing people."

He has done that over the last three years, particularly in 2001,
when San Jose won its first title. U.S. coach Bruce Arena invited
him to national team camp following that season but told him
before practice began that he wouldn't make the 2002 World Cup
roster and to consider it a learning experience. Arena brought
Mulrooney into camp again last January even though he had missed
the 2002 playoffs with an ankle injury, and he was on the 25-man
roster for the Gold Cup in July. "I owe a lot to Bruce because
that month playing at that high level prepared me for the
season," Mulrooney says.

Arena isn't the only one to have noticed the 5'9", 160-pound
Mulrooney's improving play. Several Spanish teams hoped to sign
him when his contract expired after this season, but in August
MLS signed him to a multiyear extension at $200,000 per year.
Mulrooney is expecting to be in the national team camp when it
opens this month, buoyed by his rare goal (only the fourth in his
career) on a day when high-scoring Chicago forwards Ralph and
Ante Razov whiffed on numerous chances.

"Every team needs a guy like me," Mulrooney says. "I take pride
in making the tackle or clearing the ball off the line. I don't
need to score 10 goals a season. Hey, one goal, in the MLS
final--that's enough for me."

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: ROBERT BECK (2) While Donovan (far left) won MVP honors, Mulrooney kept theQuakes organized.