The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
My affinity toward Landon Donovan is remarkably simple: He’s about my height and about my age. It’s enough to create a bond in my brain.
I suppose if I grew up in Europe the success he’s found in athletics despite his small stature might not surprise me quite so. But I didn’t, so it does. The kids born across the pond in the early 1980s had little guys such as Baggio (five-nine) and Scholes (five-seven) to adore after Johan Cruyff (five-eleven) led the way, but American sporting heroes of the 1990s were larger than life and simply huge. Bledsoe and Barkley, the Michaels: Jordan and Johnson. Hell, even Tiger Woods was so damn good at least in part because he was so damn big.
The focus of the athletic still life my 10-year-old self drew was a superstar dunking from the foul line, not lining up a corner. So it’s surprising but exciting when United States’ all-time leading scorer stands for an interview, and the five-foot, nine-inch figure printed in the media guide is exaggerated. Or maybe he is that tall, but he certainly feels smaller, especially in the context of Oguchi Onyewu, Tim Howard, and Jozy Altidore.
Then there’s the age thing.
He arrived in California roughly six months before I was born somewhere across the country. Neither of us is old, far from it in fact, but I suspect we are both realizing the inevitable. Our similarities are few—Donovan is a national hero; I am a journalist holding an iPhone to record his thoughts—but we both find ourselves involved in worlds that grow ever younger.
This is not an impressive, new, or noteworthy observation. It’s not a surprise. It’s not unique. But it is a tough realization when it comes for you. The early stage of my so-called career is over. Donovan—albeit massively more successful—is there as well.
For him, it’s even more dramatic. The Left Coast Kid famously won the Golden Ball at the 1999 U17 World Cup. The performance vaulted him to prominence around the world, if not in the United States. It led directly to the ill-fated stint in Germany and his subsequent return home. Bayer Leverkusen begat a loan to the San Jose Earthquakes begat the Los Angeles Galaxy (begat, briefly, Bayern Munich and Everton). The U17 squad (35 goals) turned into the U23 (nine goals), then the full national team (46 goals and counting). The cover of Sports Illustrated became Outside, then turned into the New York Post. The stuffed animal he brought to the U17 World Cup morphed into the dogs then Bianca. The spotlight started shining before Y2K and has only grown brighter as soccer’s market share grows.
Donovan knows the glare. It’s been shining for more than a decade, after all. His thoughts extend well beyond the field, and he offers them. When the Americans traveled to Honduras during a coup in 2009, Donovan provided eloquent commentary on the situation while interviewed in a tunnel under Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano. This is unusual. In addition to being enormous physical specimens, we expect our athletes to be singularly focused on their sport. That’s the only way anyone could be this good. Donovan has a small frame, this sweet smile, and a liberal arts kid affect. He should be lining up against Middlebury or Pomona, but he’s freakishly talented, determined, and tougher than anyone assumes so the equipment guy irons on a No. 10, and he leads the Stars and Stripes against Mexico and Portugal.
Here we sit in 2011, a little more than a year from “Go, go USA!,” with Donovan at 29. Not old, but certainly not young. The accolades are there, both on a club level and internationally. He is rightly celebrated as America’s all-time leading goal scorer, but few mention that his 47 assists are well more than second-place Cobi Jones’ 22. Donovan’s stint at Everton proved that he could compete in Europe but also what anyone really paying attention already knew: The US’s most skilled player thrives when he isn’t required to be the most important man on the field.
The move to the wing was an attempt to capitalize on this reality. It freed him up to make runs and use his underrated vision to create chances for his teammates. The plan worked, until it didn’t. Then Bob Bradley benched his star in favor of Alejandro Bedoya for the Gold Cup semifinal against Panama. Step back for a second: 1) It was absolutely the correct move 2) It had to piss off Donovan, who is competitive to that relaxed SoCal core. The player is too loyal to make it an issue, but that doesn’t mean others couldn’t or didn’t. We’ll never be on the inside of the locker room, but it sounds like Bradley lost the team. The Benching of Landon had to play a (small) role.
Enter Jurgen Klinsmann to lead the US to what could be Donovan’s last World Cup. 2014 will almost certainly be the final time it’s “his” team. The new coach is the star’s old manager, the man who showed faith in him at Bayern when no one else would. Klinsmann brings a smile to the press conferences and change Donovan can believe in to the American squad.
The question now is what does Donovan have left? His ability to avoid debilitating injury, to turn direct hits into glancing blows in a way that a guy like Stuart Holden can’t, is astonishing but the nonstop soccer is wearing down his frame. While he spurned Europe this winter to take a break, he still looked tired. But the second half of the friendly against Mexico was a revolution. He and Jose Torres teamed for inspiring one-touch passing, looking like they’d been missing each other. They brought the quality up around them.
Donovan speaks Spanish and German. The irony is not lost. The future of the US team under their new USSF-appointed visionary combines those influences with good old fashion Americanism. A brief vision: Chandler to Torres to Donovan to Altidore. Go, go USA.
If you wanted a player to embody it all, you might create Donovan. Actually, you would create Landon. So one more run for the aging California Kid.
I’ll be there watching, mic in hand. He will be there, too, a little smaller, a little older, always vital.
There is life after 30. Right?
Noah Davis (www.noahedavis.com) covers the United States national team for MLSsoccer.com and has reported from exotic locations including Guatemala, Honduras, South Africa, and Columbus, Ohio. You can follow him on Twitter @noahedavis.
The Michael Jordan wingspan poster figures prominently.
He has half a year. I have two inches. We’ll call it even.
American soccer successes are rare. We celebrate what we can.
Perhaps the best trade so far.
And how many more would he have had if the team could finish?
The disaster that followed occurred because of issues at a higher paygrade than those of an imported American forward.
by Noah Davis · September 22, 2011