As part of the buildup to the World Cup, ESPN FC presents a series of features on players who have divided opinion throughout their careers. It began with profiles of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Luis Suarez and Mario Balotelli and ends with a profile of U.S. star, Landon Donovan. Though hailed by many as the United States' greatest-ever player, has he lived up to his potential?
Take one look at Landon Donovan’s career, both at club level and for the U.S. national team, and you’ll find that there is plenty to admire.
Donovan is the rare American teenage phenom who has largely delivered on the hype that surrounded him. He’s won a total of five MLS Cups, is the league’s joint all-time leading scorer, and has scored more goals for the U.S. than anyone else. He’s also been at the heart of the national side’s best World Cup moments over the last 15 years, scoring big goals on the way, including the last-gasp winner against Algeria four years ago that propelled the Americans into the knockout rounds.
Off the field, Donovan has largely steered clear of controversy. Yes, his move from the San Jose Earthquakes to the L.A. Galaxy by way of Bayer Leverkusen earned him the enduring hatred of Quakes fans, but that was limited to the supporters of one club. And the only time he was a candidate to become tabloid fodder was during his divorce from actress Bianca Kajlich, a situation he completely defused during a soul-bearing press conference prior to the 2010 World Cup. Compared with the on-field transgressions of say, a Luis Suarez, or the off-field peccadilloes of John Terry, Donovan is a dream player for general managers, coaches, teammates, and marketers alike.
Yet even as the end of his career draws near, the 32-year-old Donovan divides opinion like no other American player past or present. Rather, Donovan’s career decisions have confounded, running against the narrative created by fans and media. That path dictated that at some point, Donovan should commit to an extended spell in Europe, dominate the opposition, and become the first global American superstar.
Given such huge expectations, it’s no surprise that it hasn’t worked out that way.
A pair of spells with Bayer Leverkusen each ended with Donovan going to MLS. The second stint was especially troubling, as Donovan bailed after just a few months in Germany. The fact that he landed with the Galaxy only fueled the perception that to find success he needed to be placed inside a narrow comfort zone surrounded by friends, family, and the California sunshine. When Donovan suffered through a dismal 2006 World Cup, the view was that he had been coddled rather than tested, and that his considerable ability was being wasted.
“I see no reason, with Landon’s talent, why he couldn’t have done exactly what he did with the Galaxy at a great club in Europe,” said former U.S. international and current ESPNFC television analyst Kasey Keller. “But that was his choice, and that’s the part people forget sometimes. They take personal ownership in their sports heroes and they want to see them do particular things."
Donovan’s willingness to stay in MLS added additional layers to the conflicting views about him, the biggest being the question over just how much he cared about his chosen profession. The divide increased when Donovan spent the first three months of 2013 on a self-imposed sabbatical, instead of going through preseason and the first month of the regular season with the Galaxy.
“Donovan sends mixed messages perhaps a little bit in terms of you watch him, and you’re not sure when he’s turned on or turned off,” said Galaxy assistant coach Dave Sarachan, who was also an assistant on the 2002 U.S. World Cup team. “What may be obvious to those on the outside -- should he stay in Germany, should he stay in England, should he push himself higher -- may not be right for certain players and those were decisions that were made.
“You’ve got the camp on one side, ‘Geez, is it really important to him?’ Then the others who really know him go, ‘When push comes to shove you take him every time.’”
Donovan rehabilitated his image to a degree thanks to two successful loan stints with Everton, as well as his heroics at the 2010 World Cup, where he scored three goals in leading the U.S. to the round of 16. But throughout is career there has always been an air of vulnerability about Donovan, a dose of gray in the often black-and-white world of pro sports. There have been several interactions with the media that have taken on the air of a confessional, his self-doubt sitting in clear view alongside his talent and success. It's why U.S. teammate Clint Dempsey is more revered for his in-your-face style, not to mention his sustained success in England.
Yet MLS coaches continue to value Donovan above all others. Last year, an ESPNFC.com poll of MLS managers revealed that every last one of them would take Donovan over Dempsey.
“I think when it comes right down to it, in a World Cup game for the country, if you have Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey standing there, I’m going to pick Landon Donovan,” said ESPNFC television analyst Alexi Lalas. “Now, in bar fight or a street game, I’m going to pick Clint Dempsey.”
The widely differing opinions about Donovan are something he has long accepted. During a promotional event for Samsung last week he admitted he understood fans’ reactions to him earlier in his career, when he was, in his own words, “a punk”, and his reputation as a diver rubbed people the wrong way. As for the decisions to eschew Europe, move to the Galaxy and stay there, there is no ambiguity. He remains convinced he made the right choices.
Donovan does have regrets however, and invariably they come back to mentality. One is that he wished he had someone to mentor him when he first went over to Leverkusen as a 16-year-old back in 1999.
“I think I would have stuck with it and had a different attitude when I first went in,” he told ESPN FC. “I was so used to being a star and thinking everything was going to be handed to me. I wish I had known that it wasn’t going to be that way so I could figure it out. Even if the result was the same, where I still wanted to play in America, I think it would have been good for me to have a different mindset.”
He also lamented his performance at the 2006 World Cup, a tournament where he wilted under the pressure of being the focal point of the U.S. attack.
“I wish I had had a different mindset going into the ’06 World Cup,” he said. “I think I gave away a few important games and moments in my career because I wasn’t prepared. I was in a different place, so I don’t really blame myself, but I just wish I had been in a better place and I could deal with it better.
“[In 2006] I had a great opportunity to do something great or something special. I could have played better, I could’ve helped the team win, I could’ve helped us advance. I was just sort of in the end going through the motions without even realizing it. I wish I could’ve been more productive.”
Granted, that failure later provided the motivation for Donovan to excel four years later. And those two World Cups encapsulate the conflicting view that fans have of him. Donovan has achieved much, yet his career is surrounded by what-ifs. Foremost among them is the sense that if he had tested himself in Europe, he would have come closer to reaching his potential, or at least the public’s perception of what his ceiling is.
“I’ve grown to respect Donovan more and more as the years go on,” said former U.S. international and current Atlanta Silverbacks manager Eric Wynalda. “But I am in that category that just wants more.”
But judging Donovan’s limits is something that can only be done in the abstract, and shouldn’t prevent his achievements from being appreciated.
“Donovan is the best American soccer player in history in my mind,” said Lalas. “I think what he has been able to accomplish on the field, what he has brought to the game of soccer off the field, I don’t think there’s anybody else. His ability to come up big in big moments makes him a star as far as I’m concerned. Certainly Landon has faded out during games, but he also has the habit of re-emerging oftentimes at the absolute perfect moment to provide a moment of brilliance. That’s what you get with Landon. It’s not perfect, but none of us are.”