The enigmatic legacy of Landon Donovan

A few days before the United States played Germany in the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals, some of us in the American press corps got to spend extended time with Landon Donovan.

After his dazzling goal against Mexico in the second round, Donovan was becoming the prodigal face of American soccer that had been anticipated. A newspaper columnist in Riverside, Calif., near Donovan’s hometown and who had tracked Donovan’s stellar youth career, was dispatched to South Korea.

For more than an hour in the players’ recreational suite at the U.S. team hotel in downtown Seoul, Donovan answered question after question, patiently, matter-of-factly, without any hesitation. He was at turns introspective, humorous and self-contained, well aware that his moment, and that of a U.S. team that had surprised many by getting this far, had arrived.

Given the opponent, many of the questions that day were related to Donovan’s brief, ill-fated tenure at German Bundesliga club Bayer Leverkusen.

He admitted he was a kid, a teenager a long way from his comfortable California home, unaccustomed to the grueling training regimen and the fierce competition for playing time, even on age-group squads, as well as the cold treatment he said he endured from his mostly German teammates.

It wasn’t hard to sense that because of that experience, Donovan was driven to play his ass off against Germany. I don’t want to suggest I could see it in his eyes as he spoke to us, but Donovan was magnificent that night in Pusan, denied by Oliver Kahn’s astonishing goalkeeping.

Reaction to the Donovan omission:

That time in Seoul, during a summer 12 years ago, is what I thought of when I heard the jolting news that Donovan had been left off the U.S. World Cup roster by coach Jürgen Klinsmann. Not the apparent end of a glorious national team career, as the most prolific goal-scorer in U.S. history, but at the start of it, when everything seemed possible for Donovan.

By virtually every American standard, what Donovan accomplished has no equal. He scored 57 international goals, five of them in the World Cup. His late stoppage time goal against Algeria in Pretoria four years ago helped elevate the sport even higher into the sporting consciousness of America.

Donovan absolutely terrorized Mexico, from finishing with a brilliant header in Jeonju, to last September in World Cup qualifying with a goal and a corner that led to another score, both in what have became known as “Dos a Cero” affairs against the bitter rival of the U.S.

But because of his promise and his early stardom, Donovan was never going to be held just to an American standard. That had been a relatively low bar, compared to what U.S. soccer leaders, the media and fans were expecting. And others, including Klinsmann, transplanted by then to southern California and a close observer of American soccer developments.

While commentating on German radio during the 2002 World Cup, Klinsmann — the icon of Germany’s last World Cup championship team in 1990 — was especially hard on Donovan, as American soccer writer Marc Connolly noted in 2003, accusing the 20-year-old of a “lack of confidence” in the quarterfinals.

Donovan reluctantly returned to Germany for the 2008-09 season in a brief sojourn with the Klinsmann-coached Bayern Munich, where the initial breach of trust between the two men may have occurred.

A couple of loan spells at Everton are the only other instances that Donovan left MLS, a career choice that has rankled many who have wanted, expected, demanded, that he do more, be more, all to help advance American soccer. Donovan has never really shaken the ugly and unfair “Landycakes” moniker.

Donovan’s sabbatical from the U.S. team early last year, including a 10-day trip to Cambodia during World Cup qualifying, might have been the decisive moment for Klinsmann. Yet Donovan returned to the team for the Gold Cup and did well in the rest of qualifying, although he has done little since.

He’s 32 now, not a 90-minute player, his body worn down and his mental energy flagging. In a typically revealing interview for a pre-World Cup documentary on ESPN, Donovan admitted to all this, which seems prophetic in retrospect. Klinsmann, who in the same program essentially accused the U.S. media of regarding Donovan as a sacred cow, didn’t wait for three upcoming friendlies to cut Donovan and get the roster to the 23-man limit.

Clearly he’s far from the player that he was at the last World Cup. But his ability to score goals, win games and seize big moments is unparalleled. Klinsmann’s group, by contrast, has only five players with any previous World Cup experience. Five of the newbies are German-Americans, some of whom have just entered the American fold. To not have Donovan at least on the bench for a brutal group stage that includes Ghana, Portugal and Germany is flabbergasting.

I’ll let others who cover the team expound on all this, as I linked above. Klinsmann knows what he wants, and says without elaborating that others were “ahead of” Donovan in training camp.

There are those who assert Donovan’s omission had nothing to do with soccer and everything to do with politics, and there might be some truth to that.

Donovan isn’t without his flaws, and his current fitness and motivational levels are low. He’s not in great shape and hasn’t scored a goal anywhere since last October. Klinsmann called this the toughest decision of his career, and he’s right that you can’t be wedded to the past.

But I can’t help wondering that Donovan will never be forgiven for part of that past — for not sticking it out in Europe, for not pushing himself to be truly world-class, for not being the perpetually dogged, fiery, heroic “talisman, ” even though he has led his team to World Cup glory in his own way.

Yet everything that Donovan has been, and what he could still offer, in one final World Cup, is superior to what Klinsmann is taking to Brazil, with a few exceptions. Donovan may never have been truly world-class, but what’s come along since him in the well-funded American development ranks is sorely lacking.

Instead, the player who gave American men’s soccer an identity and unprecedented respectability has been given an unceremonious boot.

He deserved a better ending than this.

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