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Apr 3, 2008

Donovan unable to appease his critics

A supremely talented and spectacularly decorated attacker will suit up Thursday at Home Depot Center.

His trophy shelf includes three MLS titles, a U.S. Open Cup crown and a record four Honda U.S. Player of the Year medals. He's scored more goals in a U.S. shirt than anyone, including a massive strike in a historic World Cup win over Mexico. The accolades could go on.

Suffice to say, he's undeniably talented, marketable, affable and humble despite his accomplished career. He's just a pretty good egg.

So why do so many soccer fans hate Landon Donovan?

Inexplicably, there's a significant faction of Donovan-bashers, and I just don't get it.

To say "dislikes" is understating the case. Plenty of soccer fans get all red-faced and huffy puffy at the mention of his name, speaking of Donovan in disparaging R-rated language, labeling him a "punk," a "disgrace," a "gutless wonder" and such. Where does that level of acrimony originate?

Even when he suits up for U.S. Soccer, Donovan is a flash point. Obviously it all goes back to his pair of European flybys. He left our country for Germany as a 16-year-old. He didn't enjoy it, so back he came.

Then it happened again, his second stay with Bayer Leverkusen going no better than the first. So Donovan returned stateside again. And so what?

Donovan preferred life in the United States. Is that really such an awful thing, to enjoy your country and prefer it? It's not exactly drowning kittens, now is it? And yet, lots of people punish him for it.

Donovan says he doesn't spend much time trying to understand it.

"The reality is, when you're somewhat successful at what you do, there's always a group of people who aren't going to like you," he said Monday. "I like to think I live my life the right way, and that's what's important. But I understand that people are passionate about soccer, and I can see where they wouldn't like me as a soccer player."

Ultimately, Donovan says, he cares most about what his teammates and managers think about him.

Actually, I suppose I do get it. I understand the hostility; I just don't agree with it.

Americans love their heroes and expect them to rise to a certain standard. They want their aces to be daredevils or conquerors, hell-bent for greatness and glory. To do otherwise somehow violates the founding tenets of our nation, that quintessentially American notion of working hard, climbing the ladder, achieving the dream.

They see talented people like Donovan as characters in a book, not as mere human beings. In Donovan's case, a generation of U.S. soccer fans wanted desperately for him to be the breakthrough superstar in Europe, the man who could finally, firmly plant the American flag in EU soil -- without wearing a pair of goalie gloves.

I understand that American fans are desperate for this player. But truthfully, that's not Donovan's problem. It's not his burden to bear.

FC Dallas manager Steve Morrow said, no disrespect to MLS, that Donovan may well have become a better player if pushed beyond his comfort zone by a tougher European league. But Morrow also said that's somewhat beside the point.

"For me, it's all about a player being happy and comfortable," Morrow said. "If a player isn't comfortable in his environment, he's probably not going to improve. ... A lot of young players have gone abroad and maybe it wasn't the right situation for them. He's still young as well. Maybe he can still go later at a better time for him, in a better situation. He's still got that for him."

Fans may argue that Donovan will never quite reach peak potential if he's not playing in Europe, not grinding away in the those tough practices, unchallenged by better players in domestic play and Champions League. And there's probably some truth to it.

But that doesn't matter. We all make decisions about our lives, our careers, our families, etc. We have all earned that right as human beings, and so has Donovan. It's incredibly selfish of people who wish to live the soccer sweet life vicariously. Donovan doesn't owe those people a thing.

So the legion of Donovan bashers, upset that he's not their chosen soccer savior, unfairly devalue his accomplishments. Past machismo-inspired silliness and misguided expectations, none of the classic Donovan criticisms stands up to scrutiny.

"He only scores for the national side on PKs."

Show me a striker with big totals and I can probably show you a team's PK taker. Plus, anybody who has been on the field knows that plenty of players on every team want nothing to do with spot kicks. Too much pressure.

"He's scored all those U.S. goals against bad teams." Countless fellows have played countless matches against CONCACAF minnows and haven't come close to his scoring deeds.

Each and every criticism conveniently overlooks that Donovan is undeniably one of the elite in terms of talent in our country. Say otherwise and you're dangerously close to slipping over the edge of soccer nincompoopery.

Here's something else: He's become a brand-name star without becoming a big-time jerk. He's done it the right way, never running afoul of the law. Image-wise, he's clean as Hannah Montana. Believe it, America: Not all of your sporting heroes are as upright.

Not only is he generally accommodating for press and promotion, he can do it in Spanish as well as English. That from a man who lives in Los Angeles, a town lousy with athletes and artists who might have to close their eyes and think really hard to manage basic subject-verb agreement in one language, much less two.

Donovan had a bad night in the Galaxy opener, possibly one of his worst in a Galaxy kit. But he also provided perhaps the only L.A. highlight in the horror show: The man some call "Landycakes" got in Ciaran O'Brien's face for the stupid, needless whack at Carlos Ruiz. That's as much heart as anyone from the Galaxy showed all evening.

Donovan has his faults. He's a soccer player, not a patron saint. I just can't understand the level of vitriol over a guy who does everything he's asked for club and country.

In most sports, stars get the benefit of the doubt and then some. Fans stand by their heroes despite overwhelming evidence that they are rotten characters. Too many superstars wouldn't bother to dial 911 if someone were on fire -- unless some agency rep was offering a $30,000 appearance fee to do so.

For some reason it's different in soccer. In this sport, in this country, they sometimes eat their own.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.