It’s been a strange, almost schizophrenic time to be a soccer fan. On one hand, we have had the euphoria of the looming 2014 World Cup. Squads confirmed; fantasy teams drafted; bets made (or not made); bold predictions proclaimed; last minute tickets purchased; viewing parties planned – all the anticipation and hoopla that (appropriately) comes with the world’s most celebrated sporting event. On the other, however, we have had yet another reminder that the sport’s highest governing body is more or less corrupt to its core, as well as continued social unrest in Brazil. And then, if you’re an American, you’ve had to deal with the lingering effects of U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision to leave Landon Donovan off the team. (First World Problems, but still.) Basically, it’s been everything from exciting to frightening to disappointing for three straight weeks, rinse and repeat.
Now, when Klinsmann made his fateful decision, I’m sure he knew he was making waves. Sure, the news commentariat and the Twitter opinion-mongers would dutifully swoop in, do their thing, discuss the topic to death, and move on when something juicier came along. However, I’m not convinced that he was fully aware he was kicking off an endless cycle, a cycle that would always, no matter how many times it spun around, end up where it started: with The Landon Decision. With the Landon Decision, Klinsmann provided the shape of the overarching U.S. narrative in Brazil. Beforehand, the big questions for the U.S. were: “Can the U.S. survive the (so-called) Group of Death?” “Will the U.S. finally get past Ghana?” “What younger players will step up and take the torch from the U.S. team’s fading veterans?” “Can the U.S. overcome their recent defensive struggles? “What about their historically subpar offensive punch?” All of this (and more) will still be a part of the story in the coming weeks but, fair or not, it will all be (and has been) overshadowed by one big “what if” question. What if Landon Donovan, he of 156 U.S. national team caps, 57 national team goals, and 58 national team assists (not to mention three World Cup appearances and five World Cup goals), was on the team?
It’s a shame on multiple levels, not the least of which that Donovan has been reduced from Landon Donovan, the best soccer player in U.S. history, to “Landon Donovan,” a weaponized talking point in quotation marks. Unfortunately, we’re going to hear a lot about the latter version of Donovan over the next couple of weeks. Personally though, rather than focus on the things he might have done this summer, I’d like to expand the scope and appreciate the things that he actually did accomplish over the course of his sterling, though sometimes turbulent, career.
Whether they battle robots in alternative timelines or merely dazzle us on a soccer field, all heroes have an origin story. Landon Donovan was born in Ontario, California in 1982. At the age of five, his mother signed him up for soccer not because he had shown any real curiosity or fascination with the sport, but simply because he was a hyper kid. He scored seven goals in his first game, and everything took off from there. Donovan was a natural, a phenom, something of a chosen one from an early age. In 1997, at the age of 15, he was accepted into the U.S. Youth Soccer Development Program. For Donovan, the timing of his entrance onto the U.S. soccer scene couldn’t have been much better.
As the decade was winding down, U.S. Soccer was coming to a crossroads. Though the sport had never been more popular nationwide, and though the U.S. women’s national team was beginning to thrive (they would go on to win the 1999 World Cup in memorable fashion), the U.S. men’s national team was struggling to develop into a respected international threat. While the U.S. team surprisingly managed to sneak into the round of 16 in the 1994 World Cup (which the country hosted), they ignominiously dropped all three games in group play four years later. If the team was known for anything, it was for their power, their work ethic, and their grit, rather than their talent. They were in desperate need of young talent, marketable stars and, more than anything, a new identity.
In 1999, U.S. Soccer made a crucial step forward with the founding of the U.S. U17 Residence Program. It took place and was headquartered at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. It was there that, for better or worse, the future of U.S. soccer was molded. Among the inaugural class were not just Donovan, but also DaMarcus Beasley, Oguchi Onyewu and Kyle Beckerman. The group was trained and immersed in soccer 24/7, in preparation for the upcoming U17 World Championship. It’s consistent with what we know of him now, that Donovan, despite his evident talent, initially struggled to adapt to living and breathing nothing but soccer. There’s much more to Landon Donovan than the game he plays, and that was true even then. Not that any of that slowed him down, though. (Not at that point of his career, at least.) He would go on to shine at the World Championship, winning the tournament’s Golden Ball.
The year 1999, however, was not just a big year for Donovan on the national level, it was also the year that he went pro, signing a lucrative deal with the German club Bayer Leverkusen. However, as exciting as his professional start seemed, the culture gap proved too much for the young Californian. Remember, this was someone who struggled to adapt in Florida; in retrospect, Germany, at such a young age and with his personality, should have been ruled out for a few years. Within two years, Donovan was back in the states, on loan, playing for Major League Soccer’s San Jose Earthquakes. To some, this was evidence that Donovan was soft. Unlike other Americans, like, say, Brian McBride and – well, actually, pretty much just Brian McBride at that point, Donovan didn’t have what it took to excel in Europe. On the field, though, Donovan was unfazed by the criticism. In the MLS, he quickly became a star, leading San Jose to the MLS Cup in his first season. He had exactly what the nascent league needed: speed, talent, flair and youth, which differentiated him from the rest of the league’s top players, who, at the time, were mostly foreigners in the twilights of their careers.
If 1999 was Donovan’s promising rookie year, his time in Germany his sophomore slump, and his MLS Cup season his triumphant rebound, then 2002 was the year Donovan truly began coming into his own at the game’s highest level. By that time, Donovan had moved up from U17 to U20 to U23, participated on the 2000 Olympic team, and finally, had officially become one of the brightest young prospects for the USMNT. At the 2002 World Cup, Donovan scored two goals, as the U.S. upset Portugal (a tournament favorite), defeated Mexico (the eternal nemesis) in the round of 16, and came within a missed handball call away from equalizing their quarterfinal match against Germany. But the call wasn’t made, and neither Donovan nor any of his teammates were able to find net. Be that as it may, though, the U.S. was the surprise of the tournament and Donovan was their breakout star.
By the next World Cup cycle, Donovan had another MLS Cup title under his belt (2003), had been awarded U.S. Soccer Player of the Year twice (2003 and 2004, and he would also get the award in 2009 and 2010) and had become the United States’ all-time assist leader. He was, undoubtedly, the face of U.S. Soccer. On the other end of the spectrum, he had also had another unsuccessful stint in Germany. This time, he only played seven games before returning to the less competitive MLS. It’s possible he wasn’t ready for the jump at that point in his career, that he wouldn’t have found success had he stuck around longer. Landon Donovan isn’t the type to do something unless he’s comfortable in his own skin, content with his surroundings, and on his own terms, though; perhaps he just didn’t give it enough time. Either way, he was once again written off as not having the “right” mentality. It didn’t help matters that when the World Cup came around, the U.S., despite coming to a hard-fought draw with eventual-champion Italy, was unexpectedly crushed by Czech Republic, and then eliminated by Ghana. In 2006, Donovan failed to score in the tournament and, overall, wasn’t as effective as he was four years prior. (To be fair, nobody could score; Clint Dempsey was the only American to score in the whole tournament.)
In 2008, Donovan, by then with the MLS’s Los Angeles Galaxy (he won his third MLS Cup in 2005), took another stab at playing in Europe, this time, with Bayern Munich. It was somewhat brief, lasting just the duration of the MLS offseason, but with four goals, it was a step up. The noticeable improvement gave Donovan the confidence to return to Europe in 2010, when he joined Everton for the offseason. That time, he played so well that he would have stayed with the team if not for the fact that the Galaxy (understandably) wanted their star back. He would return for a short stint in 2012, notching seven assists over the course of a couple of months, and appearing to once and for all vanquish the legion of critics that said he couldn’t be a factor in an elite league.
When Donovan was at his peak performance, he was faster than just about anyone – with or without the ball – and he somehow had the stamina to be that fast for long periods of time. He was generally known as a scorer first; his all-time leading 57 national team goal total is 20 more than second place Clint Dempsey, his 137 MLS goal total is three more than MLS veteran Jeff Cunningham. Although he was never internationally regarded as an elite passer, he’s also the U.S.’ all-time leader in assists (57 to the lovable Cobi Jones’ 22) and the MLS’s second all-time assists leader (120 to current Houston Dynamo assistant coach and former U.S. national team stalwart Steve Ralson’s 135). He had a preternatural knack for making things happen, and of being in the right place at the right time.
As many accolades as Donovan garnered over the course of his career, and as interesting of a character as he was and continues to be, Donovan’s most indelible moments were in the 2010 World Cup. After drawing with England in a game that the U.S. maybe, probably should have won, the pressure was on against Slovenia. The US played well, scoring twice after falling behind 2 to nil in the first half. The first goal, an electrifying blast by Donovan, from what at first seemed to be an impossible angle; the second, off a long ball played by Donovan into Jozy Altidore, whose header was met by the foot of a streaking Michael Bradley. (There was also a third US goal – a Maurice Edu finish off of a Donovan free kick – but it was waved off, in yet another questionable call. But that’s beside the point.) The draw kept the U.S.’ hopes of advancement alive; all they had to do was get by Algeria to advance. However, both teams failed to capitalize on their opportunities throughout the game. Chances were missed, posts were hit, a Dempsey goal was ruled offsides, and the match remained scoreless. And then, 90 minutes and 45 seconds into the game, this happened:
And across the country (and even in some other countries) THIS happened:
Even now, four years later, it’s hard to watch without getting goosebumps. It was pretty cool, to say the least. But a lot has happened since then. World Cup hero Landon Donovan, scorer of five World Cup goals – the fifth, off a penalty kick, came in the round of 16 match against Ghana; that’s the one that gave him more World Cup goals than Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Zlatan Ibrahimović combined, the evocative stat that you’ll hear mentioned by Ian Darke and Co. a few times over the next few weeks – decided to take a break from soccer. And, really, he did it for very Landon Donovan-like reasons. Anyone who closely followed his career shouldn’t have been too surprised. Unlike plenty of his peers, Landon Donovan sees himself as a person first and a soccer player second; Donavon, mentally drained, felt as though he was in some way off, and that time away from the game would give him the best chance to improve at being both. When he returned, he wasn’t the quite the same. Since his return, outside of a strong showing in last summer’s Gold Cup, he’s seemed, if not past his prime, than at least out of shape. If the voices of the Internet were to be believed, then Donovan should have made the team anyway. Even if he didn’t start a game, they said, it would be useful to have a player of his stature and experience, as an option off the bench – whether he’s in top form or not. However, his German soccer manager, Jurgen Klinsmann, didn’t see the merit in this, and the rest is (recent) history.
In truth, I don’t know if the U.S. would fare any better in Brazil if they had Landon Donovan, and neither do you. We can feverishly debate this topic every four years and never come to a definitive conclusion. To my mind, though, even if we had a way to know for certain that Klinsmann made the right call – that Donovan, by walking away at an inopportune time, had effectively wasted a portion of his prime – it wouldn’t matter. His career and his accomplishments already stand out; his skills, his quirks, his strengths and his flaws are all worth appreciating anyway.
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently writes about sports and culture for Yahoo Sports and Yahoo Voices, and previously covered the Carolina Panthers for Football.com during the 2013 season, as well as college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College Fix, The Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time in the near future.