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Nov 28, 2006

Adversity of '06 a learning experience for Donovan

As the holiday season approaches, U.S. soccer star Landon Donovan can probably be expected to feel grateful that 2006 is nearly over.

Originally, 2006 was supposed to be the year when Donovan would step forward on the world stage and lead the U.S. team to World Cup success, thereby proving to the world and himself that he'd made the right decision in spurning Europe to play in Major League Soccer.

Instead, except for one courageous effort against eventual champions Italy, the American squad looked tentative and unsure in its games, failing to advance out of group play. The Americans didn't win a single match. Donovan, considered a key spark plug to the attack, only attempted one shot in the entire tournament.

Donovan found little solace in his return to league play, as his Los Angeles Galaxy squad was mired in a winless streak that eventually prompted the dismissal of coach Steve Sampson and the arrival of a new coach, Frank Yallop.

Yallop, who had paired with Donovan to great success when both were with the San Jose Earthquakes, entrusted the forward with the captain's armband. Although Yallop and Donovan managed to improve the Galaxy considerably, it wasn't enough to make up for the early-season funk, as the Galaxy failed to make the playoffs for the first time and were unable to defend their 2005 title.

"This year was the most disappointing, from start to finish," Donovan said.

"That which does not kill us makes us stronger," Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, and perhaps Donovan has been thinking along those lines.

"I learned the most [this year], but that's not because of the good things," said Donovan. "I think what has happened this year will help me for the rest of my life, not just the rest of my soccer life. It will help even more than if we had gone to the World Cup and been somewhat successful."

One thing soon realized was that a bad World Cup didn't mean the death of the sport in the U.S.

"It's not a positive impact, but it's also not the end of the world," said Galaxy GM Alexi Lalas, and a two-time World Cup defender himself. "I know everyone runs around and thinks that soccer is going to just go away. It's not. MLS is going to continue to survive and thrive and I think the most important thing is to learn the lessons from this year. I think that there has to be some perspective."

Part of that outlook may finally assign Donovan a more realistic role in the national team's future plans, as neither its savior nor its cursed downfall, but a valuable cog with the experience and skill to help the squad and himself rebound from the disillusionment of 2006.

As often happens, buildup creates a backlash. Perhaps unwittingly, Donovan had set himself up as a target by returning to MLS in early 2005 and declaring that he didn't need Europe to improve. Though many U.S. players performed below expectations at the World Cup, the standard set for Donovan was perhaps the highest. Thus, he fell the farthest in esteem.

Though the pre-Cup press had focused on Donovan, the hopes of many fans after the event transferred to Clint Dempsey, the young midfielder who was the only American to score in Germany. Dempsey is brash and bold, known as much for his goal celebrations and moonlighting rap career as he is for his dribbling skills. His eagerness to go to a European team served as a counterpoint to Donovan's reluctance to return.

Although former national team coach Bruce Arena stated his preference that the top U.S. talent should try to play abroad, the president of U.S. Soccer, Sunil Gulati, did not make such a blanket recommendation.

"I'm not going to say that every player should play in MLS or that every player should go abroad," said Gulati.

The relationship between productivity of players and domestic or foreign experience wasn't clear-cut to Gulati.

"There's very few, looking at the last team, that have only been in Europe. There's a number that have only been in MLS, obviously. I think the nature of things is that players who want to go abroad will go abroad. That's not all the best players. It's some of them. Landon is a pretty great example of one that wants to be here."

Yet the comfortable life Donovan had established in Southern California got a shake-up after the setback at the World Cup. The only national team coach he'd ever known was released. Then the league voted on a new salary rule to allow other stars into MLS. As the Los Angeles Galaxy will likely be a target for some of the incoming talent, the status quo of Donovan being the best player on the team might no longer exist.

In the past, Donovan has gotten away with fading in and out of form, something that's unlikely to continue.

"It's weird with me; I've always been that way," Donovan said. "I get into grooves where I'll be more aggressive. I'll shoot more, I'll take people on more, and then I get grooves where I don't do that."

In the friendlies to start the year off, Donovan was more concerned about organizing the team and steadying the midfield. He found it difficult to switch back into attack mode.

"I'll say, 'I played fine'. But [other observers] will say, 'You didn't have a shot on goal, you never dribbled at anybody.' What I'm hearing and what I've learned, is that it's better if I am aggressive and I mess up. People appreciate that more than if I'm not and I just play safe all the time. That's not why I'm out there, to play safe."

A more daring attitude could come at just the right time. Because the national team still does not have a coach, that remains the biggest unknown for Donovan.

"I would be dishonest if I didn't say I'm a little bit worried, just because I don't know what to expect," said Donovan. "With Bruce, I knew the atmosphere, I knew where I fit in, and with a new coach that will be different. Maybe that's good for everybody to be a little bit on eggshells. But it won't be relieving just to know the coach. It will be relieving to have a few camps, fit in and understand what the philosophy is and what they want to do, and then I think it will be easier."

More than ever, Donovan turned to his MLS team for a sense of stability and continuity.

"That's my settling influence," Donovan said. "The question is, how do I keep pushing myself? My mentality when I came back from the World Cup was different. I know a lot of people don't see it. They say, 'They didn't make the playoffs' but I know the way I played. I know the way I prepared every game is different than I've ever done and I'm never had a stretch of so many games where I was really focused."

The teachings of difficult circumstances left their mark yet again.

"I need to do the things that I'm good at, that people appreciate about me and then I can also make the team better," said Donovan. "Those things go together. It's helping the team when I'm aggressive and creative. That just means reminding myself that those are things that I need to do. It sounds easy, but it's not always easy."

Despite the dismal end result of missing the playoffs, Donovan didn't suffer a World Cup letdown after returning to the Galaxy, scoring the majority of his goals in the second half of the season.

"That's encouraging," said Donovan. "I know I say all the time that I need to be consistent, but I know I'm going to be that next year."

It's perhaps fitting that Donovan has chosen to get married to long-time love Bianca Kajlich on New Year's Eve. Going into 2007 as a changed man both draws the curtain on 2006 and signals a fresh start. Donovan doesn't wish to forget the year entirely, however.

"Ironically, I learned more than I ever have in my life, personally and professionally. So I'm thankful for that."

The lessons now need a practical application. It's not as if Donovan has to wait for another World Cup to redeem himself -- not with the CONCACAF Gold Cup and Copa America on the schedule for the U.S. team next year. Donovan wasn't ready to assume he'd be involved, but he was hoping.

"It depends on what goes on, and who they want going. It will be fun to go play some pretty damn good teams."

As Donovan spoke, the sun was setting at the Home Depot Center, the playing ground of the Galaxy. He gazed out over the darkened field.

"I've never walked in here in an offseason, looked down there and wanted to play a game. But now I can't wait. I can't wait for preseason, I can't wait to get back into camp, and I want to start working out. I understand this is what I do, and now I've gotten past the, 'It's my job; it's just what I do.' I love to do it. I'm going to go do it and enjoy it."

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