And Donovan, typically guarded as closely as the Crown Jewels, put on an exhibition worth its weight in gold, shaking free to lead the Galaxy to a 3-2 victory at Rio Tinto Stadium.
"It's pretty bewildering to be up two goals to nothing and lose the game 3-2," RSL defender Nat Borchers said. "We made some bad mistakes in terms of our possession, and they made us pay.
"They were definitely ice cold when it came to finishing those chances."
RSL didn't look much like a team at the top of the Western Conference.
Donovan and Mike Magee took advantage of gaping cracks in RSL's defense. This allowed Donovan to use his greatest asset speed.
"Those two goals came so easily that the guys thought this was going to be a cakewalk," RSL coach Jason Kreis said. "They took their foot off the gas and took a long time to recover from that."
As usual, the showdown lived up to its hype. Whenever Real Salt Lake (10-4-2) and the Los Angeles Galaxy (5-8-2) tangle, the result is entertaining soccer.
Wednesday was no different as 20,382 hyped-up spectators shook Rio Tinto with each sway of momentum and a host of RSL scoring chances in the second half that went begging.
The stars for each side also did their part in creating a fascinating ebb and flow to a midseason clash that had the feel of a playoff game.
"It's always like that with their team and our team," Donovan said. "They're a great team, and we know for probably the last four or five years, the road to a championship goes through them and vice versa. It's chippy, but there's a lot of respect both ways."
The game featured world-class goals from both teams, including RSL's Alvaro Saborio. There was also a fortunate stroke of luck for hustling Kyle Beckerman, who found himself with the ball at his feet in front of a yawning goal mouth.
Fabian Espindola, a two-goal scorer in RSL's 3-0 victory at Chivas USA, turned into a playmaker with a pair of assists in the opening half.
In the ninth minute, the RSL striker chased down a long pass at the end line and flipped a cross through the middle of the 18-yard box.
Ned Grabavoy, with his back to goal, took a swipe at the ball, but missed. Beckerman didn't, tapping the ball into the open net for his fourth goal of the season.
RSL increased its advantage 15 minutes later. This time, Espindola found Saborio, who barely touched the ball. He had enough, however, to leave Saunders and the rest of the Galaxy watching in what had to be slow motion for them as the ball bounced casually into the back of the net for his seventh goal.
Although the Galaxy had shown flashes of danger, especially on crosses from Beckham, it took a Real mistake to put Los Angeles on the scoreboard.
Donovan intercepted Tony Beltran's backpass, then proceeded to give those watching a lesson in finishing. The forward faked out a sprawling Nick Rimando and scored from a left angle to narrow the gap to 2-1 in the 29th minute.
Magee tied the game in the 50th minute as Los Angeles took advantage of another RSL defensive breakdown.
Storylines L.A. 3, Real Salt Lake 2
R With a goal each from Kyle Beckerman and Alvaro Saborio, RSL takes a 2-0 lead after only 24 minutes.
• In the 29th minute, forward Landon Donovan steals a Tony Beltran pass and is all alone to put Los Angeles on the scoreboard.
• In the second half, defensive breakdowns continue to plague RSL.