BOSTON — To the faithful few who followed American soccer fortunes long before David Beckham blessed us with his presence, the young Landon Donovan went from the American wunderkind to its wuss with remarkable speed.
He was the former back in 1999 when, after being named outstanding player in the U-17 World Cup, he signed a contract to play in the German Bundesliga with Bayer Leverkusen. It was a lofty perch for an American teen, especially one who — unlike the previous generation of top American players with ethnic roots in the game — had learned his soccer in American fashion on the fields of southern California. But Donovan was unable to command playing time in Germany and, less than two years later, returned to play in Major League Soccer (MLS), enthusing about the virtues of the laid-back lifestyle at home.
Donovan, a rather callow kid, was not the least bit humbled by the failure and didn’t even acknowledge the disappointment of those eager to believe that American soccer had been on the verge of a breakthrough. Over the next decade, Donovan would excel in MLS and also become the all-time leading goals and assists player for the U.S. national team. In 2002, as a precocious 21-year-old, he once again got the world’s attention when he helped spark the upstart Americans into the World Cup quarterfinals.
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Yet as impressive as his international record was — 42 goals in 121 games — the German failure lurked as a kind of a roadblock to the international stature Donovan felt he deserved. He would return to Bayer Leverkusen again briefly in 2005 and would try Bayern Munich in 2009, but would leave both after brief stints — still without ever having scored a goal in the Bundesliga.
But those weren’t even his worst experiences in Germany. That was the 2006 World Cup, where Donovan was considered the key to elevated hopes for the American team spurred by its successful 2002 Cup run. And the cocky Donovan seemed certain he and his running mates would pick up just where they had left off four years before. Instead, the American attack proved non-existent and Donovan was essentially a no-show in a dispiriting team effort that sent the U.S. home without a win.
His explanation — that he just wasn’t there mentally — wasn’t really much of an explanation at all, only evidence that maturity comes later to some. Now he at least seems to have learned more from that failure than he did from the earlier success.
“Expectations are useless,” he said, as he prepared to depart for South Africa, where he will once again assume the role of offensive sparkplug. “I don’t think back any longer. That lesson has been well-learned and won’t be duplicated.”
At age 28, his face and his outlook are a bit weathered by more than a decade in the spotlight, even the dimmer one of American soccer. Though less brash, more considered now, he actually has more reason to feel confident — beyond his continued success with MLS’ L.A. Galaxy — about his ability to compete at the elite level. He owes much of that to England, which, ironically, will be the first testing ground for Donovan and the Americans in the World Cup.
Not too long ago England, if aware of Donovan at all, knew him only as the benighted, American pop-off who had the nerve to trash David Beckham after their first season as teammates with the Galaxy. (Both players subsequently indicated that they have reconciled.) But this past winter, Donovan was loaned to the English Premier League’s Everton where he helped spark a revival at Liverpool’s lesser side.
English fans were surprised — Everton fans were delighted — to watch what American fans have come to relish in Donovan’s game: his swift glide down the flank; his fearlessness in racing at defenders; his deft touch in seeking out teammates; and his pinpoint accuracy with free kicks. One Everton fan told the New York Times that he had expected Donovan to be strictly a fringe player, but was devastated when the Yank had to return to MLS before season’s end. “I can’t picture him out of the team,” he lamented. “He’s made his mark.”
Having excised those European demons that diminished him in so many eyes and — though he would never admit it — likely his own, Donovan now hopes to make his mark on the world stage in a more indelible fashion than with his first, successful World Cup romp.
“At 20, it was youthful exuberance and naivete and literally playing every day because you loved it,” he said after a recent workout with the American squad. “Now there’s more responsibility and, in my opinion, more opportunity.”
Donovan has, in the past, struggled to grasp exactly what that responsibility is and to embrace it fully. He had once hoped, by dint of his historic achievements in American soccer, to go to South Africa 2010 as team captain. But coach Bob Bradley diplomatically rebuffed his overture. Donovan insists that he respects the coach’s judgment. “I wasn’t ready and he saw that.” Donovan says, without any evidence of rancor. “With Bob you earn everything you get.”
But Donovan believes he is ready now, recognizing that there are many ways to lead beyond the captain’s armband. And it ultimately will be his responsibility, as it was in failure four years ago, to forge the U.S attack. American fans who might have been concerned about deja vu after Donovan was virtually invisible through the first half of the recent Cup warm-up against Turkey, had reason to celebrate after he set up two stellar, second-half goals to rally the team to a 2-1 victory.
But Donovan now hews to the script and scrupulously avoids pronouncements about what fans can expect from him or from the team in South Africa. Still, there is every reason to believe that this time around Donovan will show up — and show off his skills to boot. And as goes Donovan, so goes the American team.
Name: Landon Donovan
Club Team: LA Galaxy
World Cups: 2
World Cup Goals: 2
Club appearances 2009-10: 10 (Everton); 9 (LA Galaxy)
Club goals 2009-10: 2 (Everton); 1 (LA Galaxy)