After 10 years crisscrossing the Atlantic Ocean to prove he is truly a world-class player, Landon Donovan has peace of mind and considerably less weight on those overburdened shoulders.
The invisible asterisk that was bogging down his otherwise brilliant career is gone. No more Landon-is-a-great-American-player-but-can’t-hack-it-overseas. No more self-doubt.
It took a lot of lonely chilly nights in Germany, a lot of seemingly endless games on Bundesliga benches, a decade-worth of soul-searching and three impressive months with Everton in the English Premier League.
Finally, the top goal scorer and most elegant ballhandler America has ever seen is happy, ready and eager to lead the United States into the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
The United States opens against England on Saturday in Rustenburg, and every English player will be aware of Donovan’s presence, which is larger than his 5-foot-8 frame. After watching his Everton stint, they know he has pace, silky passes, great vision, decisiveness and an uncanny ability to guide the ball into the back of the net.
He picked up many of those tricky moves as a kid in Southern California, playing in a Hispanic neighborhood, for a team called “Cal Heat.” He was surrounded by Mexican, Honduran and Salvadoran teammates who taught him Spanish and the Latin style of soccer. Creativity and keeping the ball on the ground were more important than organization and physicality, which may be why Donovan’s game never flourished in Germany.
Unlike those kids, Donovan had no soccer pedigree. Nobody in his family ever played. His mother, Donna, signed him up when he was 6 years old because he was hyperactive and a teacher suggested soccer would help tire him out. He scored seven goals in his first game, and thus began the love affair.
COMPARED TO GREATS
There have been other good playmakers on the U.S. team – among them, Tab Ramos and Claudio Reyna. Ramos was born in Uruguay. Reyna’s parents were soccer-savvy Argentines. Donovan is pure American, which makes his style of play that much more impressive.
He has scored 42 goals and has 42 assists in a U.S. jersey, more than any player in team history. He has been spectacular in Major League Soccer, first with the San Jose Earthquakes, then with the L.A. Galaxy. But all that success wasn’t enough to complete his résumé. In order to be considered a bona fide star, he needed to do it on European soil, where the world’s best players ply their trade.
A DREAM DEFERRED
Donovan’s first three stints in Europe were forgettable, at best. After starring at the 1999 Under-17 World Championship, he was signed by German club Bayer Leverkusen to a four-year, $400,000 contract. It was unheard of at that time for an American teenager to get such an offer, so he packed up and chased his dream.
He spent two years on the bench, craving playing time and sunshine. In 2001, frustrated and demoralized, Donovan returned home to play for San Jose. He led the team to MLS titles in 2001 and 2003, and in 2002 helped the United States advance to the World Cup quarterfinals, the team’s best finish in 72 years.
Still, the whispers and skeptics haunted him: Can he play with the big boys in Europe? In 2005, he returned to Leverkusen for another try. He played five games but never fit in. He gave up and came back to MLS, where he was a star with the L.A. Galaxy.
During the 2008-09 season, Donovan decided to give Germany a third try. He went on loan to Bayern Munich. Not much changed. He struggled to gain respect, so back to the Galaxy he went.
HIS BIG SHOT
Finally, this past January, he was loaned to Everton, and made an immediate impact. He was named Player of the Month in January, and fans loved him so much they chanted “U-S-A” whenever he touched the ball. He wound up with two goals in 13 games. More important, he gained the respect and acceptance he had been so desperately seeking all these years.
“The biggest improvement I’ve made has been mentally,” Donovan said. “My time in Everton was a really big test for that – to see how far I’ve come.”
So much so that Everton management said they would like to have him full time.
Now, Donovan, 28, has a new approach to his career, and life.
“I changed the way I look at my career, the way I play,” he said. “I would almost say I’m a 180, that things have changed completely in almost a 180 from where I was four years ago. Knowing who I am, first and foremost. Knowing who I’m not, which is equally important in life. And knowing the things to do to be successful. I no longer focus on the things I can’t control.”
The 2006 World Cup left Donovan with a bitter aftertaste. After reaching the quarterfinals in 2002, expectations were high, but the team didn’t rise to the occasion. Neither did he. This time, he insists, things will be different.
“I’m more real than I was. I’m more centered, and those things give you confidence, but also ease that whatever comes you’re going to be OK with,” he said.