Keith Hickey: Taylor Twellman should have been MLS' all-time scoring leader

Landon Donovan may have the record, but Twellman's abbreviated career showed the Revs striker was truly the best at finding the net.
Landon Donovan is the best player in the history of Major League Soccer. That much, given his talent and success and longevity, is indisputable. But he wouldn't have reached his most recent achievement, the acquisition of the league's all-time career goals record, if fate hadn't taken out his biggest competition.

In the mid-2000s, the undisputed scoring king of MLS was New England Revolution striker Taylor Twellman. In his 2002 rookie season, Twellman scored 23 goals. He followed that up by leading the league in goals in his second year. In 2005, he scored 17 to win the Major League Soccer MVP award and another Golden Boot. He was the youngest and quickest player to score 100 goals.

In 174 games, Twellman scored 101 times, a rate of 0.58 per game, and better than any of the league's other all-time great marksmen. Jeff Cunningham's rate was just 0.36, while Jaime Moreno's was only slightly better at 0.39 goals per game. Donovan's is 0.44.

Former U.S. national team star Alexi Lalas, a defender and later team executive in MLS during Twellman's career, and now his friend and colleague at ESPN, explained what separated the Revolution forward from the rest of the pack.

"You had to know where he was at all times," Lalas told Goal USA. "The best players are always in the back of a defender's mind. Taylor could recognize and take advantage of that momentary lapse in concentration that provides the slightest opportunity. He smelled the opportunity and he wouldn't let it go.

"He was also fearless and so any hope of physical intimidation was usually futile."

It might have been that fearless nature that helped bring his career to an early end. On Aug. 30, 2008, Twellman scored his 96th career goal in the 22nd minute of a game against the LA Galaxy. His head connected with a long Khano Smith cross, and Galaxy keeper Steve Cronin connected with Twellman's skull.

After being knocked to the ground, Twellman picked himself up and ran off to celebrate, like any player would after putting his team ahead. He made it to the sideline, jumped up and punched the air in triumph. Then he kicked an advertising board at the side of the field, turned to teammate Shalrie Joseph and told the midfielder of a concussion. He buried his face in Joseph's chest and then doubled over with his face in his hands before staggering to the ground, blood coming down the side of his face.

Twellman stayed in the game. He finished out the season. After missing time the following season, Twellman made a comeback. In his second game, he scored two goals - his 100th and 101st - in a 4-0 win over the New York Red Bulls.

Taylor Twellman never played competitive soccer again. He was 29.

Had neck injury and post-concussion syndrome not derailed his career, it's almost certain Twellman would have claimed the all-time scoring record. Allowing for late-career dropoff, upwards of 150 goals seems an entirely reasonable final tally. At 34, he'd probably still be playing today.

"I have no doubt that he would have gone on to break the record and represent the U.S. in World Cups," Lalas said. "He was the kind of player that you wanted to play with because he was relentless in his pursuit of a goal."

If Twellman's body had kept up with his desire, Donovan would still be chasing.