It's playoff time in Major League Soccer, which means Mike Magee is in a rich, warm current of form.
Magee proved the difference as the LA Galaxy, the reigning MLS Cup champions, ousted the Supporters' Shield winners in the Western Conference semifinals. The 28-year-old scored the series-deciding goal against the San Jose Earthquakes on Wednesday, taking his total to two goals and one assist in three playoff games in 2012.
"There are certain players this time of year that play at a different level, and Mike's one of them," Landon Donovan, who assisted Magee's goal on Wednesday, said.
So what's Magee's secret?
"There's no explaining it," Magee said. "I think just as a team we always tend to rise to the moment and I'm no different."
For the past two seasons, the Galaxy have certainly showed up in the biggest matches. Los Angeles clinched the Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup last year, and overcame a first-leg deficit to oust San Jose, the best team in the league, from this edition's playoffs.
Magee, who has scored five goals in each of the last two regular seasons, now has five goals in his last seven playoff matches. Extended back to 2009, when the Galaxy reached the MLS Cup final, the Chicago native has scored seven goals in 14 playoff matches.
"Technically, Mike and Robbie [Keane] are by far our two best finishers and our two best strikers of the ball," Donovan said. "When he gets a chance, he's lethal."
Bruce Arena called Magee's razor-sharp finishing "unique" among Americans. And Arena should know; he coached the U.S. national team in two World Cups.
Arena also worked with Magee for a spell at the New York Red Bulls. Since bringing Magee to the LA Galaxy, Arena has helped transform him into a big-game wide midfielder.
"He was more or less a second forward for the most part, although he played midfield," Arena said. "But now he's a complete player where he can be counted on to do his defending as well."
The transition wasn't easy or smooth. Magee cites a knee injury in 2006 that "opened my eyes." Since then he's gone about training himself how to live like a professional athlete. "I had to learn how to take care of my body properly," Magee said.
More than that, he started putting in the gritty work to become a consistent starter. As opposed to youth games, "where you can walk around the field and score a couple goals and that'd be enough," MLS demanded a more well-rounded game.
"I'm 5-9, 150-something pounds. I'm not fast either. It's not really natural for me to be a professional athlete," Magee said. "I had to make up for it in other ways, especially defensively. I had to get fitter and be able to play longer because I couldn't get away from just being quick."
He added: "You have to do all the little things to stay on the field, which took me a couple years to realize."
Though he was drafted by the Metrostars as a teenager, Magee nearly ran out of time to figure the pro game out. New York let his contract expire after 2008, bringing an end to his five-year tenure there.
"The last years in New York were kind of painful," Magee said. "The team wasn't doing well and I wasn't even close to healthy. It was a weird time and then my contract expired. I had no idea what was going to happen. Not to be dramatic but I wasn't sure if I was ever going to play again."
A phone call from Arena gave him a last chance. He didn't move to California with inflated expectations. "I didn't know if it was going to be my last year," he said. "Essentially just give it one last shot and see where I'm at with a fresh start."
It worked out well in Magee's favor. "Besides the good weather," he found a winning team that suits his technical abilities. He prefers the understated role, able to step out of the shadows of higher-paid players to burn opposition teams in big matches. Names like Donovan, Keane and David Beckham naturally preoccupy opposition coaches and defenders.
"If teams don't focus on them, those guys are going to score a lot more goals than I am," Magee said. But don't mistake humility for a lack of ruthlessness. "When they forget about him, he makes them pay," Donovan said.
Even if opposition teams tend to forget him, Magee's teammates don't. In last year's run to the MLS Cup, Beckham assisted three Magee goals. Magee pointed out that when he makes those far-post runs, Keane and Donovan hustle to cover his defensive position.
"It's not like I'm asking them to, they just do it," Magee said. "A lot of teams I've played on, guys haven't done that and it hurts the team, because then I maybe stop making those runs. I won't get those goals because I'm scared about my defensive responsibilities. ...
"If I didn't have that I probably wouldn't have any goals."
But he does, so he's got a respectable tally of crucial goals. Up next are two legs against the Seattle Sounders in the Western Conference semifinal. Will Magee add more against a stingy Sounders defense?
"We're feeding off each other's energy," Donovan said. The energy Magee emits buzzes with big-game sensibilities.
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