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On Landon Donovan

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.

Fucking millennials.

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.

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On Landon Donovan

by Noah Davis · September 22, 2011

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  • Mark 

    Plenty has been said about Landon, but I those who have lambasted Giuseppe Rossi (I am not one) for playing for Italy aren’t spending as much energy praising Donovan for surpassing expectations in his commitment to US Soccer and the USMNT.

  • tonyto 

    Eh, the knock against Donovan not being able to cope at the highest levels is clearly not dispelled by playing 10 good games for Everton, turning up (like every other US MNT player) for every other world cup and playing internationals against weak opposition (Mexico often being the exception). The MLS is a second tier league and he is one of the best players in it but really we cannot consider him world class without having played for an extended period in a top league. Donovan has life after 30 but it’s up to him whether he’s going to sit back and take in the praise from myopic American soccer fans willing to inflate his place in the world game or attempt to prove that he can sustain quality play for several seasons at the highest levels. I hope for the latter but I wouldn’t bet on it.

  • Gregor 

    @tonyto Your comment is very confusing, but I ended up understanding what you meant.

  • tonyto 

    @Gregor Congrats on the reading comprehension. Next week is comma splices.

  • KillaKam 

    The issue about Donovan not playing at the top levels of football are partly his fault (early on) and partly the fault of MLS’ franchise structure (later on). Early on he was frustrated by playing in Germany and wanted to leave, but recently MLS (not LA Galaxy) threw cold water on the idea of Everton extending his loan or signing him outright. To have our most popular (and currently best) soccer player sent to the Premier League would have been a great thing in my eyes, but what we got was Donovan wallowing in a league that seems to have been beneath him for years.

    I think the MLS’ system is one of the key barriers to future American success, at home and abroad. To say that the US doesn’t have much of a record of producing great players for Europe is an understatement, and that means that there won’t be a huge transfer fee for a young (or semi-mature) American any time soon (especially after Jozy Altidore). MLS clearly doesn’t like this because it doesn’t understand what was mentioned above: MLS is a second-tier league. Maybe even third-tier.

    Among the number of things wrong with MLS (and, therefore, American soccer) is the fact that a player can only be transferred out of that league if the front office arbitrarily agrees in addition to the player and the club. That means you now have four entities (including the transfer-initiating team) that have to agree on all terms, and one is a league that doesn’t necessarily have at heart the interest of any of the parties actually involved.

    When we do get a promising young American player, MLS tends to think that the league is good for developing them. They don’t understand that promising young players appear to be pretty well developed by the time they play in a full-fledged league, and that league play really should be for skill refinement and not development.

    MLS seems to think that the way to grow the game in America is to keep its good players at home until the mythical “multi-million-pound-Chelsea-offer” comes. The main way American soccer will grow is to sell our young players to clubs all around the world, even if the transfer fee isn’t 5 or 10 million dollars. That way when they come home, Mexico won’t seem like a global-colossus that they have to figure out a way to kill.

  • Chris 

    @tonyto I love the fact that Landon has, for the most part, stayed at home for his club career. He lends credibility to MLS, and he must like living in LA. Stints at Everton showed what an excellent pure winger he can be, in a better league, but his role at Galaxy and with USMNT is often different. I know the conventional wisdom is you must send your precious young studs to Europe to develop in the “best” leagues, but I have not been impressed with their tutelage of Freddy Adu, Jozy Altidore, and others. I think the most important thing is to get regular first team football somewhere challenging…riding the pine but collecting your paychecks in Euros doesn’t help anyone.
    I think Landon has done the smart thing for his life and his sanity: staying at home in California, helping develop MLS, and he is absolutely a world-class player despite not committing himself to the overhyped EPL. Watch Donovan on the pitch against world-class competition, he passes the eye test. And then he puts the ball in the back of the net, and passes another sort of test.

  • KillaKam 

    @Chris Donovan isn’t playing against world class competition at the moment. Why are the fates of American players and MLS always tied together? This isn’t the NFL we’re talking about. It isn’t like there are only American players to choose from.

    By the way, Freddy Adu’s inability to develop could be attributed to his time playing in America. I remember him being played as an attacking player early in his career, and clearly that is not his strength.

  • Chris 

    @KillaKam Had a long post written that brilliantly refuted all your points, and then I lost it. Here are the highlights:
    Donovan IS a world-class player, playing in a second-tier league. MLS is significantly improved over the last few years, and I daresay we might be able to develop our home grown talent here, at least in part. Many Americans currently playing in Denmark, Greece, Scotland, English Championship, etc might be better served playing in MLS. Certainly our coaches can oversee their development easier if they are closer to home. Sending our 12-14 year-old pre-pubertal studs over to Europe does not seem like a great idea, for a number of reasons. A stronger MLS means stronger player development camps, minor league teams, and youth academies, so Landon staying at home is hugely important. He lends credibility to the league, he can play along side young studs like Omar Gonzalez, and a young generation of fans gets to watch him play close to home.
    Now, the guys playing in EPL, Spain, Germany, or Italy should obviously stay, those leagues are miles better than ours. Maybe even the guys playing at Rangers (mediocre league but a chance at Champions League football). But for the young guys on the cusp, I hope they consider MLS now that we have a competitive league and they can shine on the domestic stage.
    As for Freddy Adu, he played in MLS from 2004-07 (age 14-17) and then went to Benfica. He never got first team football at Benfica, or any of the other clubs he was loaned to. I cannot agree with your assertion that 3 years in MLS was somehow responsible for Freddy’s ups-and-downs. From age 17-21 he languished in Europe and stagnated. I am rooting for him to have a renaissance at the ripe old age of 22, and contribute to the USMNT.
    Obviously Freddy is just one example of a bust (so far), but I put Donovan forth as an example of what is possible with MLS now. Guys like Shea, Gonzalez, Ream, De La Garza, Rogers, and Agudelo have developed domestically, and unless they can get first team football in one of the really great leagues, I argue MLS is just as good as the second-tier options, and our league and USMNT would do well to keep them.

  • James C. Taylor 

    In spite of his undoubted ability, Landon Donovan (I sometimes want to call him “Donovan Landon”) has always seemed less a footballer, more a recurring minor character on Dawson’s Creek. Maybe some new kid in town who falls for lil’ Joey Potter, much to the chagrin of JVDB.

  • noah 

    @James C. Taylor Amazing. And, perhaps, accurate.

  • KillaKam 

    @Chris I’d like to remind you at this point that Landon Donovan left the USA at the same age Adu did. The difference in talent between the two may simply be natural, but the examples of very good (not world class, as you claim) American players who have stayed in America until 22 or 23 is slight. What’s going on now with Americans being sent all around the world is simply an alternative option to the failed attempts of the past.

    Remember that MLS was created and grown less as a traditional soccer league and more as a distinctly American sports league with a franchise system, no promotion or relegation, a clock that counted down, shootouts instead of draws, separate divisions inside a single league, and playoffs (which don’t normally occur in the top level of a soccer league). Another characteristic of American sports leagues that MLS seemed to follow was the idea that it would gain popularity through developing great players at home and keeping them there. This is not how world football works.

    The lesser leagues in the world survive utilizing things like team rivalries or (in the case of European leagues) a promise of UEFA club matches. There are two things that will prevent MLS from being anything more than a second-tier league (I only say this for the sake of argument because I think MLS is really a third-tier league, with leagues like the Primeira Liga or Eredivisie being real second-tier leagues). The first is the fact that MLS (or any league for that matter) is not the place to develop formative “world-class” football skills. This usually happens way before a player actually plays in a real league and is pretty much the case in any sport. Second, if American academies and teams somehow find a way to develop the next Maradona, the transfer value for that player would be so enormous that MLS would have to sell him.

    Generally, great players don’t want to play in lesser leagues unless there are mitigating factors: money (Beckham), old age (Henry, Keane), diminished top-tier interest (all of the above), etc. MLS has continued to grow, even though most of its home country’s top players don’t play in it. If you can’t promise a young player the chance to play in the best leagues in the world simply because of a hypothesis that states that MLS can’t grow without chaining its native players to it, you will find more and more kids turning to American football and basketball.

  • Sam 

    A great article and an entertaining read!

  • Arthur Tanimoto 

    I’m sorry but you just put Bledsoe and Barkley in the same sentence. (ALITERATION NOT WORTH IT, DUDE!)

  • Arthur Tanimoto 

    Okay, I just butchered alliteration. I lose.

  • noah 

    @Arthur Tanimoto Point taken, but I grew up in New England so Bledsoe was quite a big deal. Right up until the point we all realized he was immobile, that is.

  • Soccer Stop.com 

    I feel Landon Donovan is an integral part of the US MNT setup. He, if nothing else, is an inspirational leader with his hard work and leadership abilities. However, there is more…he is a good soccer player and gets the job done for the US of A.

  • rick 

    bledsoe???

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