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May 8, 2006

Donovan: 'I'm different than most players'

Landon Donovan is not the savior of American soccer.

That realization encompasses the sometimes contradictory elements of the hype wrapped in the hope inside the true talent of the player. When it comes to views of Donovan, though, the perspectives can shift wildly from one extreme to another.

Wearing a T-shirt and jeans over his slight frame, deftly maneuvering an Xbox game controller in the lobby of the California headquarters of Electronic Arts, Donovan looked for all the world like a teenager enjoying his video games.

Not many progressing through EA's FIFA 2006 World Cup are also planning on the real-life version, however.

Once he sat down for an interview, the marks of a professional athlete were unmistakable. It's not just that Donovan's peak conditioning stretched the skin over his cheekbones taut, or that he projected a coiled tension in his movement -- kinetic energy waiting to be unleashed. It's that his dark eyes carried the focus of someone on a mission.

Landon Donovan is cowardly.

The youngest of three children (twin sister Tristan arrived first) raised by a schoolteacher mom, Donovan has evidenced a sentimental streak. At 16, despite the mocking of teammates, he would take a teddy bear given to him by a girlfriend on road trips. A two-year stint with Bayer Leverkusen's reserves produced huge phone bills from frequent calls to his family and friends. He traveled home as often as possible, finally leaving Germany to join Major League Soccer on loan to the San Jose Earthquakes.

During his four years in San Jose, a blossoming relationship with actress Bianca Kajlich led to more phone calls and flights in and out of Los Angeles. By all accounts, a tragic accident in 2003 that nearly claimed Kajlich's younger brother's life affected them deeply. Supporting Kajlich and her family through the crisis, Donovan viewed firsthand the fragility of the moments people often take for granted.

A return stint to Leverkusen lasted only four months. Per his request, the club sold his rights to MLS, whereupon Donovan was allocated to the Galaxy. Happily reunited with his family and Kajlich, at this point his fiancée, Donovan rejected the idea that playing abroad was necessary to advance his skills.

"I'm different than most players," he admitted. "It's not like, what's the best club I can get to? That's not important to me."

A slight shrug was all the consideration Europe's temptations elicited.

"Obviously, there's a monetary advantage to being there," he said. "I'm not worried about things there. Experience has its advantages, I guess, but I feel I've had enough experiences to be comfortable in games in the upcoming World Cup. I'm not worried about that. So there's not a whole lot that I would gain by being there."

Landon Donovan is fearless.

Donovan has long been a key part of a pioneering generation of American soccer players that has garnered results at highly competitive levels of the sport, overcoming the long-held perception that the U.S. couldn't really play the game.

At the 1999 FIFA U17 World Championships, he led the team to a fourth-place finish, winning the Golden Ball as the tournament's most valuable player. In the 2000 Olympics, his goal against Kuwait helped the U.S. reach another semifinal, in which the team narrowly lost the bronze-medal match. The 2002 World Cup probably gained Donovan his greatest recognition. He played in every game, notching two goals, facilitating the team's arrival to the quarterfinals, its best World Cup showing in 72 years.

The stiff competition the squad will face during group play of the current edition had Donovan wary but still confident.

"Our national team doesn't lose much," he said. "Normally, playing against the Czechs and Italians, you'd go in as an American thinking, 'Oh, great, here we go.' But I think guys really think now we're going to win games like that."

The possibility of a second-round matchup against Brazil left him similarly unfazed. Although he acknowledged the difficulty of the task, Donovan did not view it as insurmountable.

"Could we beat Brazil? Absolutely," he said.

Landon Donovan disappears.

A knock against Donovan at various points is that at times he fails to impose his will on a game.

Examples cited include the key Olympic qualifying match against Mexico in 2003, when a 4-0 loss knocked the Americans from an Athens berth, or the improvised MLS Select team that lost a 2005 exhibition match to Real Madrid by the humbling score of 5-0.

Donovan's choosing of the MLS also can be considered a vanishing act -- since he withdrew from a league that is respected around the world to one that still struggles for recognition.

There is no doubt a fully present Donovan will be required at the World Cup.

"I know I have the physical abilities and the soccer instinct to [be the best U.S. player on the field] if I'm prepared mentally," Donovan said. "It means I'm in the game for 90 minutes. I know I can do that. But that's where my challenge is. That's what I'm going to have to deal with in important circumstances."

U.S. coach Bruce Arena expects Donovan to figure it out.

"His experience, his confidence and his ability, which is fantastic, are qualities that I think will allow Landon to deliver a very, very good World Cup for the U.S. team," Arena said.

Landon Donovan is omnipresent.

At the end of every year since 2002, Donovan has led all national team players in minutes played. With almost 80 international appearances, he is on pace to shatter the men's all-time record for the U.S. Although he most often plays as a midfielder for the squad, his 25 goals scored rank him third all-time and his 23 assists already have earned him the top spot in that category.

His presence in MLS has brought increased exposure and credibility to the league. Donovan fostered that with numerous public appearances, giving interviews in Spanish as well as English. Although the dream might seem far-fetched to some, Donovan envisions soccer one day being on par with the NBA or the NFL.

"Everybody has a different part," he said. "My part for now is to put the product on the field that people want to come watch. That doesn't mean you have to do backheels or juggling on the field, but you have to play in an exciting way. That's a big reason why Germany was so boring for me -- just because of the style. It was such a conflict of the way I've always wanted to play. I have that freedom here."

Landon Donovan is self-centered.

Donovan does not intend to leave MLS until he is good and ready.

"I certainly wouldn't go back to Germany at any point," he said. "I think I'd probably try Spain or England if I had a chance. Obviously, it's more conducive to how I play. It'd be more fun."

He considered which player abroad best exemplified his style.

"Ronaldinho! Just kidding," he said. "A little bit kind of how [Javier] Saviola plays -- us short guys."

"He's obviously become one of the premier players in the U.S.," John O'Brien said of Donovan. "I definitely think that, given his ability, he can handle himself in any top league in Europe. The way he's gone has been his own path, and maybe he's felt he needed to do that. You've got to respect him for that because he's continually improving his game."

Self-discipline has pushed Donovan's development.

"I treat my body better," he said. "I eat better, I drink more fluids. I get more massages than I ever did. I'm in the ice bath before every game. I get to bed early. I just do things that real professionals should do. You'd think those things don't make that big of a difference, but for me it really has."

Progress had its own price, though.

"I don't have the same youthful excitement part of my game that I had back [in 2002], which is probably a negative," Donovan said. "But I'm a lot smarter on the field. I'm definitely more of a leader and more vocal on the field, which I think helps."

Landon Donovan is a generous teammate.

Often described as the type of player who elevates team play, Donovan was quick to give credit to the players who improve his own game, listing DaMarcus Beasley, Claudio Reyna and O'Brien.

Donovan kept a mentoring eye on the progress of Freddy Adu, probably the only U.S. prospect who has faced a comparable media spotlight.

"The faster you can realize that it's a job, and from that point, make it fun again, that's when you're going to be successful," Donovan said. "As talented as he is, that's what he has to figure out. That's what I've had to figure out."

In his personal partnership with Kajlich, Donovan has kept his occupation from controlling their lives. For example, he revealed that a move abroad would have to be a joint decision.

"I wouldn't go unless she wanted to go too," he said. "If she gets a role in something and someone from the Premiership called, I wouldn't do it if she wanted to stay. She's worked a lot harder, a lot longer than I have. If she had the chance, then I wouldn't hold her back."

Landon Donovan is a true believer.

It's hard to imagine anyone having more faith in the potential of the U.S. game than Donovan. He has staked his future to it, but he has not done so alone. His choice to commit to MLS was an echo of the decision players such as Cobi Jones and Eddie Pope made years earlier.

Perhaps Donovan also was encouraged by a glance over his shoulder, where more than Adu loom as imminent breakthrough stars. Donovan highlighted those who might claim that title for the U.S. team in 2006 -- Eddie Johnson, Clint Dempsey and Oguchi Onyewu.

"If E.J. wants to be that player, he's got more than enough physical tools to do it," Donovan said. "I think he's starting to figure that out. Clint's the same way. I think Clint knows it and wants it. He's a guy that can be very good. Gooch -- he's not going to be the person that everybody sees all the time because he's probably not going to score goals, but he's going to be a very good player."

Donovan might be at the head of a new American vanguard, but a team game such as soccer can never rely solely on one star to carry it forward, either in the public eye or on the field of play. There are distinct advantages to Donovan's participation in MLS. The flip side of the coin -- a move abroad -- shows benefits, as well. The debate as to which is ultimately better is as unceasing as it is pointless, especially as Donovan has done both already and could very well do so again.

As can a number of his contemporaries. Only a small minority (four) of the U.S. squad seeking World Cup glory have no MLS experience. Each of those four had college experience in the States before moving abroad. More than any previous version, the 2006 tournament stands as a test of homegrown talent and development.

American soccer can save itself.

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com