The Twisty Career of an American Soccer Star

The Twisty Career of an American Soccer Star

Why you should care

Because great talents don’t always stick to the script.

Landon Donovan has always been a little different. He’s a soccer celebrity in a country that hasn’t produced many soccer celebrities. He is neither Pelé, the brilliant Brazilian star of years past, nor Lionel Messi, the Argentine-born, Barcelona-bred megastar of today. Yet as Donovan bids farewell, we’re recognizing that we will never see anyone quite like him.

His soccer career has seen three World Cups of varying success, a celebrity marriage and divorce, and a distinguished Major League Soccer record. Donovan has followed his own path, mixing time spent in the wilderness with moments of fame and glory.

Why abandon the opportunity to play for a strong European power and sharpen your skills against world-class competition?

The first hint I had that Donovan was a little different was the first time I spoke with him, for a chat session leading up to the 2000 Olympics. He asked if he could call me back in 30 minutes. He had to take his sister to school.

Donovan competes with the LA Galaxy in Leg 2 of the MLS Western Conference Semifinals on Nov. 9, 2014.

At the time, Donovan was already a phenom being carefully watched by a U.S. soccer community on high alert for the first Great American Star. He had won the Golden Ball in the 1999 Under-17 World Championships, and signed with Germany’s Bayer Leverkusen football club soon after. He was just 16 years old.

Frustrated and homesick in Germany, he returned to the USA to play with the San Jose Earthquakes on a long-term loan, winning MLS championships in 2001 and 2003. And in the USA’s improbable run to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals, he scored a couple of goals and was named Best Young Player of the tournament.

premier american soccer star jogs on the field

Landon Donovan interacts with fans after his final match during an international exhibition game against Ecuador.

But after this period, his priorities started to baffle and even alienate the American soccer fan base, a community that has grown more demanding over the years as it has grown in size. Donovan refused to accept that a player of his ability must play in the world’s top leagues in Europe: When he was called back to Leverkusen in 2005, he asked to return to MLS after just a handful of games.

Stats from Donovan’s career and fans’ farewells: #ThanksLD

He rejoined the Los Angeles Galaxy and won another championship right away, yet many U.S. fans questioned his dedication to the sport. Why abandon the opportunity to play for a strong European power and sharpen your skills against world-class competition? Donovan’s lackluster performance in the 2006 World Cup (ironically held in Germany, the country whose league he had spurned) only cemented the notion that this was a player who was failing to challenge himself and progress.

I was on hand to see D.C. United fans waiting for him soon after that World Cup, their teeth bared and a banner held high: “GAME TIX: $100, PLANE TIX: $1,000, DONOVAN IN GERMANY: WORTHLESS.” Donovan waved his arms to the crowd, showing he was tough enough to take it, and coolly led his Galaxy team to a 5-2 rout over the strong United team.

In the locker room after that game, Donovan exuded calm, as always. He spoke in a cool, confident voice — bordering on monotone — the same one he would use whether responding to critics or showing off his house on MTV’s Cribs.

He wrestled with the often-opposing ambitions he and his fans had for his career over the years.

But his calm would be tested as his relationships were laid bare over the next couple of seasons. He was at the center of a controversy when he criticized global soccer icon and his then-teammate David Beckham in Grant Wahl’s book The Beckham Experiment. Another short stint with a club in Germany, this time with Bayern Munich, didn’t go well. He married actress Bianca Kajlich (Rules of Engagement ), but after three years together they divorced in late 2009.

When I spoke with Donovan at length in 2009, I found someone very much at peace with Beckham, Bianca and himself. He was in top form, excelling with the Galaxy and on a loan to English Premier League team Everton. He was on the cusp of what many consider his career’s defining moment.

In the dying moments of a crucial 2010 World Cup game, Donovan ran the length of the field and scored. Not only did video of the goal — and compilations of hysterical U.S. fans screaming — go viral, Donovan was immediately lionized. People named their babies after him.

Donovan became the USA’s marquee player. He had proved himself on big stages from the World Cup to the Premier League. He, Beckham and the Galaxy won back-to-back MLS titles in 2011 and 2012.

Then he threw another twist into his career. In 2013, between MLS seasons, Donovan left on an open-ended sabbatical and didn’t play for or train with the national team as it prepared for World Cup qualifications. He didn’t reveal until later that he had been battling depression, a piece of information that made his absence that much easier to understand. The national team coach, Jürgen Klinsmann, never really understood his enigmatic star, and eventually made the controversial decision to leave him off the roster for this year’s World Cup. In the end, it’s arguable that Donovan’s reputation was enhanced by missing the Cup; the USA failed to muster much attacking panache without him.

As he wrestled with the often-opposing ambitions he and his fans had for his career over the years, Donovan matured. He learned to live in the moment, rather than dwelling on past frustrations or future expectations. Then he embraced the full self-contemplation of meditation he learned during his sabbatical.

The fans who alternately booed and cheered Donovan are now cheering him in his final visits to rivals’ stadiums and in one last game with the national team. They’ve been on this journey with a man of enormous talent and an introspective mind, an unconventional sports celebrity who may not have always been what the fans were looking for, but who gave them more than a true Great American Star.

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