The Passion of Donovan: The Saga of America’s First Superstar

The people of the Baha’i Faith accept the validity of all religions and see their founders as Manifestations of God, divine messengers sent with a revelation specific for the time and place they rose to prominence. I believe something similar exists in soccer (or football, as some like to call it). Throughout history, avatars have emerged that have forced us to see the game in a different way, pushing it ever forward on its evolutionary path to perfection. The avatars of the Baha’i include Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad, while us devotees of the World’s Game might pay homage to Sindelar, Pele’, Cruyff and Best. I also believe that if football has a God, Landon Donovan is one of its modern prophets.

Donovan is the unexpected product of a soccer culture in its nascent stages, still unspoiled by the corruption that comes with being a billion dollar sports juggernaut. In the US, the working man or woman can still afford to take the family to a Sunday match and you can sit at the pub with some of your favorite players, like fans did in England a century ago. In some ways the US is a football anachronism, hearkening back to a simpler version of the game. Yet it’s also a place where radical ideas like salary caps and a player’s union can thrive. America has a lot to learn about the Beautiful Game but a lot to teach as well. She needed a champion that could do both.

Landon hadn’t grown up dreaming of playing abroad under the bright lights of Europe’s top leagues. When Cobi Jones asked him to reflect on his career accomplishments and the possibility of playing in a fourth World Cup, he answered with his now characteristic insightfulness:

“This is going to sound crazy but the only soccer I watched was when you guys were playing your national team games. I remember you, I remember Alexi…I didn’t know much about the game. There was no MLS. I couldn’t have dreamed of ever playing professionally like that.”

A familiar story for many USMNT diehards. Like Landon, I was on the precipice of puberty when the World Cup arrived on US shores in 1994, setting fire to the lives of a generation of American boys and girls coming of age during a budding new era of US Soccer. For a month or so everyone had fallen in love with the game we were obsessed with; at school, we’d gone from recruiting girls to round out a game of 6-on-6 to having too many kids to play on one stretch of field. In ’94, we were unexposed to the prestige of European club football; the motley crew of characters that made up the US World Cup team was the target of our endless adoration and envy. Their exploits on the biggest stage were, for many, our first introduction to pro soccer. We were profoundly affected by the Cup (a young Donovan attended the Argentina-Romania match and chose Roberto Baggio as his favorite player). In addition to hoping to wear the US shirt ourselves one day, we wanted our countrymen to become as obsessed with this beautiful game as we were. In the midst of the Cup it all seemed possible. It seemed inevitable.

“I was 12 and I didn’t really know a lot about the sport… I went to that game, and it sort of opened my eyes to the bigger world of soccer besides just playing club soccer or playing in my backyard.” — Donovan on watching the World Cup in person in ’94

Baggio’s scuffed penalty shot was still sailing toward the Rose Bowl’s cheap seats when America’s fascination with soccer began to fade as suddenly as it had arrived. Without pro games to watch on TV and proper infrastructure to absorb a multitude of kids with soccer fever, there were few outlets for our pent-up passion. AYSO was a dead-end and youth club soccer was prohibitively expensive for kids in my neighborhood, playing in hand-me-down cleats and cardboard shin-guards. On the schoolyard, we were back to playing co-ed games and being called fags. Later, the scandalous ’98 Cup would make the high of the previous tournament seem like a fluke propped up by childish nostalgia. As the cliché goes, by high school the vast majority of us gave up on our dream of wearing the US shirt: we chose other sports or just became working stiffs, settling for being ambassadors for soccer in much more unspectacular ways. But the conviction of one Landon Donovan would not waver.

Young Donovan rocks his own "divine ponytail"

Young Donovan rocks his own “divine ponytail”

The young Donovan had to find people to sponsor his youth club career. Landon’s mom, a single mother raising three kids on a teacher’s salary, relied on friends to help drive him to far-away games. Such was the inauspicious path to superstardom in a soccer backwater, but it was a setting no less suitable for the beginning of a hero’s journey than the desolation of the planet Tatooine. Moreover, it was uniquely American, right down to Donovan’s complicated relationship with our beautiful friends to the South. The ’94 Cup inspired other American all-time greats—Clint Dempsey, DaMarcus Beasley, Michael Bradley—but Donovan’s success surpassed our wildest expectations, beginning with the fabled 2002 World Cup run.

He was neither the dashing Beckham or cool, enigmatic Zidane that we might’ve imagined when we dreamed up the USA’s first superstar; the small-statured and soft-spoken Landon would hardly reverse the opinions of the jagoffs that teased us for wearing knee-socks in grade school. But he’d prove to be one of those rare footballers with the ability to move us with his performances. A true artist, he couldn’t mask his pure love of the game, nor did he attempt to. “This is a game I played my whole life and loved,” said a remarkably centered 23-year-old Landon after returning from Leverkusen. “It’s always been my way of expression.” He wore his heart on his sleeve, whether on the field or in front of the camera. Indeed, if he had one failing it’s that he was too much like us, a soccer nerd, blazing uncharted territory and making things up as he went, reflecting our own doubts and vulnerabilities back at us. But it’s for these reasons he’d ultimately prove to be the hero we needed.

“At that point, I didn’t know about the pressures and things involved with taking a penalty kick. You obviously felt bad for the guy, but now, in retrospect, having played in World Cups and playing in games that have some meaning, you realize what that effect must have had on him. I mean, his whole country was depending on him, and he was a star, so you knew it was a devastating moment for him.” — Donovan on watching Baggio in the ’94 Final

Like most artists, Landon is misunderstood in his time and the burden of a nation’s expectations wouldn’t always sit comfortably on his shoulders. He faced doubts about his character and mental fortitude, not unlike his hero, Roberto Baggio another temperamental genius. After suffering a career-threatening injury in 1987, Baggio found solace in Buddhism and credits his conversion with both his recovery and helping him move on after missing the famous penalty in Pasadena. Donovan ended up taking his own spiritual journey, but before that he paid homage to the Italian legend with a heroic team-lifting performance in South Africa, stealing victory in the last minutes as Baggio had against Nigeria and Spain in ’94 when he propelled an otherwise underwhelming Italy into the final. In a field-side interview conducted moments after the US won their World Cup group, Donovan first graciously gave it up to his teammates, before sharing that the goal had been the culmination of four years of hard work. Modeling himself after Kenyan runners, Landon trained by pushing himself to run at 80% of his max heart rate until exhausted, ensuring he’d still be running late in the game when other players were on their last legs. When Landon spurned the gilded promises of Europe many doubted his ambition, but any artist will understand the endless obsession with perfection that drives men like Donovan and Baggio, who remarked “I have never really been satisfied with the easily scored goal.” Donovan’s 2010 performance proved he’d become a fully-fledged Jedi Knight, rebounding from 2006’s handless spiral down the sewers of Cloud City. And even more greatness lay ahead.

But the specter of Baggio would continue to haunt Donovan’s career (and I’m not talking about that missed penalty in the 2009 MLS Cup Final). In 2011, Baggio was interviewed on the subject of his well-documented history of strife with his coaches. In Il Divin Codino’s own words:

“I’ve often wondered why they really wouldn’t consider me, but I never found the real answer. Perhaps they were a bit jealous, as everybody used to love me, even opposing fans. Was I stealing the show, denying them the role of protagonists they were desperately claiming for themselves? Modern football is increasingly dominated by the coaches, their narcissism to put themselves above the team and their players.”

Jurgen Klinsmann came to US Soccer in 2011 with lofty goals. In addition to coaching, he was put in charge of reshaping the US development structure and, more nebulously, fostering a uniquely American footballing philosophy and style of play. Klinsmann had never done either during his career as a coach, but in many ways he was the square-jawed Randian hero some fans and pundits always wanted to see representing US Soccer. By now, games from Europe’s top leagues have been beamed into an unprecedented number of US homes in mesmerizingly slick HD, setting stars in the eyes of a whole new generation of American kids. It was common sense to look to Europe for guidance to get to the next tier and Klinsmann hailed from a legit footballing power—the same country where Landon struggled in two separate adventures. Most importantly, he was a winner, having claimed the sport’s greatest prize in 1990.

Jurgen’s optimism and confidence won us over instantly. And after a somewhat rocky start, he delivered. With Donovan mostly out of the national team picture, the team was carried by the core of Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley, all excelling in top European leagues. But it was Klinsmann, Ze Mad Genius that claimed the accolades. His energetic goal celebrations went viral faster than those of the scoring players. Between matches, he confounded fans and media, who endlessly analyzed Jurgenisms like “[Clint Dempsey] hasn’t made shit” and hiring motivational speakers to rip phonebooks in half for the players in camp. Even the now-infamous-enough-for-capitals Straus Article ultimately worked to Jurgen’s advantage. Indeed, the more eccentric the grinning, ageless Klinsmann behaved, the more hooked we were. He was US Soccer’s first star coach.

Still, while Jurgen was certainly eccentric, the job at hand required a true visionary; someone who’d have recognized that the key to unlocking America’s secret had been right in front of us. Jurgen experimented with Mexico-based national team players early on in an effort to infuse more Latin-American flair to the US style, ultimately selecting none of those players for his World Cup squad. But Donovan was already the product of a marriage of those styles. He’d combined the cultured touch, quick passing and combination play he learned while touring SoCal with his Latino teammates as a youth player (becoming fluent in Spanish along the way) with the speed and stamina he developed running cross-country in high school. Landon also beat Klinsmann to the discovery of yoga, having incorporated it into his training regime back in 2006. It provided the first glimpses of Landon’s holistic approach to the game:

“When I finally did yoga for the first time this year, there were chubby guys in the room kicking my ass. Yoga is intense; it’s muscular. Soccer’s a mental game. To keep your concentration, to make the plays, you need equilibrium between the cardiovascular, the muscular, and the mental.”

Initially, Donovan and Klinsmann seemed cut from the same cloth: national team icons with an obsession for fitness and an inclination toward the unconventional. After all, Klinsmann had stuffed Donovan under his wing and flown him to Bayern Munich only a few years ago, placing enough faith in him to start him ahead of Lukas Podolski. With Ze Mad Genius sculpting an attack-minded national team around our hero, the US looked destined to become a world class force. But something deeper was bubbling that would ultimately cause an irreparable rift between the two men. After all, at 30, Landon was no longer a Padawan; he was an accomplished player and living legend in his own right. He had his own philosophy about what it took to achieve greatness and it stood in stark contrast with Klinsmann’s. Jurgen, after all, is no artist, and Donovan’s ideas would test the limits of his imagination.

Though no longer a fixture with the national team for the first time in years, Donovan had been quietly playing the best soccer of his life in MLS. He helped LA win back-to-back MLS Cups and received Player of the Month honors for the 2nd time with Everton. He was the cornerstone of a Galaxy team transitioning from the ironclad defense and countering facilitated by David Beckham’s long passing to a more possessive style built around combination play. The team coalesced around Landon’s playmaking and he finished 2012 with 14 assists, his most in a single season, adding 3 more in the playoffs to secure the Cup. Despite his on-field performances, it’s not hard to imagine that 2012 was a somber year for Landon personally. Having found a home at Everton FC, it’s rumored that Landon’s attempt to secure a permanent transfer was thwarted by MLS over the summer. He was underpaid at Galaxy, making less than David Beckham and new signing Robbie Keane despite being MLS’ best player. Amid waning passion for the game he once loved, Donovan confirmed he’d be extending his off-season to take a sabbatical from soccer. The move conflicted directly with the idea that players must place themselves under constant pressure, the philosophy espoused by Jurgen Klinsmann:

“We don’t have the environment telling them nicely, ‘OK you had a good week, but next week has to be better, and the next week again. [In the US] it’s: ‘Oh, take a week off.’ No, don’t take a week off. If you take a week off as a programmer at Apple, you missed the train, you lost the job. You can’t afford it. There is always another level. If you one day reach the highest level then you’ve got to confirm it, every year.”

Jurgen felt American players were coddled and openly criticized American sports culture in general. As I wrote previously, Donovan proved to be far more the visionary than his coach on this subject as well. It’s fitting that Klinsmann would use Apple as a metaphor for how athletes should be treated in the same year the company made headlines for working the employees in their Shenzen factory so hard they were committing suicide. We know overworking employees and subjecting them to constant stress ultimately hinders their performance; evidence mounts that the same is true for soccer players. The apparently limitless demand for soccer has players engaged in more fixtures than ever and it’s literally breaking them down.

From Ouriel Daskal’s “Injured, Stressed, Depressed and Broke”:

A Swedish 11-year study shows fixture congestion was associated with increased injury rates that’s despite the fact that medical technology and training regimes are better than ever.

Many physicians believe there’s just too much football in one season. “60 games per season are too many games”, says Dr. Stephen Ben-Shoshan is a Senior muskulo-skeletal interventional radiologist, CT & MRI musculo – skeletal imaging diagnostic. “The human body can’t handle that pressure. I see many feet and legs problems in marathon runners and many problems caused by trauma in Rugby. However, footballers seem to suffer from both problems. Traumas and erosion. Footballers are damaged like marathon running Rugby players.

Marco Reus most recently joined Franck Ribery, Radamel Falcao, Theo Walcott, Christian Benteke, Rafael van der Vaart and Alvaro Saborio on the list of star players that will be watching the World Cup from a hospital bed. We’ll be treated to dinged-up versions of Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suarez and Deigo Costa as well. It’s a trend that’s already rippling down to the youth level, where over-training and fatigue has been cited as the cause of an increase in ACL tears, an injury that haunts players for the rest of their careers. But even that’s not as bad as dying from a spontaneous heart attack, which happens more often in soccer players than other types of athletes. But hey–these guys know what they signed up for. Even if their bodies are being systematically broken down for our viewing pleasure, they’re millionaires, surrounded by fast cars and beautiful women. Their lives must be amazing, right?

One in four professional footballers (more than 25%) said they suffer symptoms of anxiety and depression. That’s according to a new study for the players’ union, FIFPro. The problem was even worse among retired players with 39% saying they were affected by depression and anxiety.

To put that into some sort of perspective, the last survey of UK Armed Forces personal said that 19.7% of of the Armed Forces suffered mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety.

The physically and mentally grueling lifestyle of soccer players is a health crisis that nobody’s talking about. Taking a sabbatical might have rescued Lionel Messi’s underwhelming, injury-blighted 2013-14 season. And therein lie the implications. If other superstars followed in Donovan’s footsteps we might have a much-needed revolution in world football. Demanding fewer fixtures would actually improve the game for everybody: the last two UEFA Champions League finals featured teams severely handicapped by the loss of star players in Mario Goetze and Diego Costa. Of course the team owners, networks and the various governing bodies that’ve grown fat off of the ever-increasing number of fixtures are less enthusiastic about the prospect of an Occupy FIFA popping off, but is it any less necessary than the one that sprung up in Wall Street and similarly spread to the rest of the world?

The Church of Football desperately needs someone to run the moneychangers out of its temples. Why not a hero from a soccer backwater? A place where the game is still in its adolescence, possessing all the irreverence and radical imagination that comes from being young and an outsider. Sure, the United States is an unwieldy behemoth geo-politically, but we’re bumpkins in soccer, working-class heroes that bounce back no matter how many goals get disallowed. And yet our soccer culture simultaneously reflects the progressivism of college-educated, middle class suburbia: MLS signed it’s first gay player to little hubbub beyond the grousing of Galaxy fans who lost the 2013 MVP in the process and we take extreme pride in the successes enjoyed by our women’s team. Face it: American soccer is radical.

Jurgen Klinsmann, the man hired to bring US Soccer to new frontiers, failed to see any potential in challenging the status quo, at least not in any meaningful way. I mean, sure, Jurgen departed from stodgy old traditions like employing tactics, but he’d prove to be a traditionalist otherwise, particularly on the subjects of attitude and fitness. He lamented the fact that there weren’t enough games in an MLS season and encouraged national team prospects to take off-season loans. He also benched Donovan for going easy in training while suffering with tendonitis in his knee. Possessing limited imagination and few original ideas, Jurgen sees little to work with in the culture we’ve built so far and will set about hastily replacing it with something that looks more like the system that groomed players like him in Germany, whether it’s a sensible fit or not. Donovan specifically came to represent all the peculiarities of American soccer that Klinsmann openly disdained.

While earning his managing credentials, Jurgen Klinsmann attended the John Kreese School of Sports Psychology

While earning his managing credentials, Jurgen Klinsmann attended the John Kreese School of Sports Psychology

But Landon returned from his spiritual journey in terrific form; the sabbatical paid dividends. Combining his cultured playmaking with renewed lethality in front of goal, he tallied 10 goals and 9 assists in 22 matches for his club in 2013. Some would credit Jurgen’s mind games with Donovan’s renewed vigor, but Landon found much more compelling motivation during his time off: self-actualization. He was now a Jedi Master, returning as teacher, rather than student. He was courageously outspoken on the subjects of mental health and therapy, and how they could help others in his profession. He’d also reconciled with his estranged dad, further lessening the need for a surrogate disapproving father-figure in Klinsmann. Again, he’d placed himself in direct opposition to Jurgen’s retrograde motivational tactics and his form was living proof of a better approach to getting the most out of players.

In the summer, his Golden Ball-winning performance captured the Gold Cup trophy (Jurgen’s first and only title as a manager) and dashed all doubts about Landon’s place in the national team. As he always has on the big stage, Landon moved us, stirring up more excitement about going to the World Cup than even the multi-goal victories over Germany and Bosnia-Herzogovina (this Donovan compilation video I made, for example, went from just over 1000 views to 15,000 by the end of the tournament). His renewed exuberance was palpable; now iconic images of Landon donning sunglasses hurled at him by a Salvadorean fan or kneeling in the pouring rain with arms serenely outstretched lead headlines trumpeting our native son’s return.

He went on to secure his place in the national team picture symbolically, clenching the US’s World Cup spot with a goal and assist in what might be the last Dos a Cero of his career. At the close of 2013, Donovan would edge out Clint Dempsey and Wayne Rooney to be the most searched soccer player in America. The enlightened Donovan was once again the face of US Soccer, poised to reveal the final chapter of a uniquely American hero’s story in Brazil on the 20th anniversary of the Cup that sparked his career.

Many USMNT fans’ heart’s sank when the World Cup draw was revealed. I smiled. As you might have guessed, I’m not one to believe in coincidences and the idea of the US facing Ghana, Portugal, and Germany in Brazil…where to start? In addition to the dramatic World Cup history between these teams, there are enough intersecting socio-political storylines in this group to be the subject of its own pages-long essay. You could start with Ghana facing the opportunity to earn symbolic revenge against two former colonizers and, perhaps, the greatest beneficiaries of their resource theft all in one group! Or we could discuss the US occupation of Germany, which allows us to poach dual nationals born to US servicemen for our national team. Why not? With even the Brazilians tearing down the altars they once worshiped before, the stage is set for all manner of iconoclasm. What better stage for Donovan to paint his post-modern masterpiece?

Landon's catharsis in the 2013 Gold Cup

Landon’s catharsis in the 2013 Gold Cup

As in 2010, he’s been gearing up for this moment. He’s bulked up so he can steer the US attack from the center, adding Laudrup-like trick passes, the ability to hold possession under pressure and beating players with skill to his arsenal late in his career. Landon is 32, a legitimate star ripening into a true master. Graduating from attacker, to creator to grand architect…he’s ready to share his story, an opus uniquely American that would be unlike anything seen before; possibly enough to confound our stiff opposition. It’s a story that would have the world powers of the game craning their necks toward the US, where soccer has yet to be marred by lack of competitiveness, match-fixing, doping scandals, overt racism and the corruption of FIFA. Who better to weave this tale than a player who defies the conventional wisdom about what it takes to be a superstar? Donovan didn’t come from any academy, turned his back on Europe and generally just played for the love of the game. Yet he’s reached heights few other stars have: 50+ international goals and assists and 5 World Cup goals. His performance in Brazil would be a gift to the world, a vision of a new way forward for soccer.

But none of that will come to past.

On May 28, the US World Cup roster was announced. Donovan didn’t make the cut. He, along with Clarence Goodson, Brad Evans and a handful of other regulars over the cycle was a casualty of the doomed culture war Klinsmann was losing with his strong-willed American players. Dempsey and Mike Bradley—long the exemplars of Jurgen’s ideal player—were returning to Major League Soccer on huge contracts. Bradley also disagreed publicly with Jurgen’s assessment that lack of belief prevents American players from achieving more in their club careers. The “lack of belief” canard was the cornerstone of Klinsmann’s approach to fixing the US national team, steering it away from a sports culture that, in his eyes, coddled its athletes and produced weak-minded stars. The idea struck a chord with not a few US fans and talking heads, churning up the stereotypical images of soccer moms and half-time juice boxes that feeds much of their self-loathing. In reality, the idea was totally misguided.

A better, more visionary coach could have recognized that it was the incredible mentality and belief of American players that’d gotten them as far as they’d gone in their careers. Without the advantage of academies or even a domestic league to aspire to play for, many American players picked themselves up by their cleat laces, learning on the fly and improvising the rest. Those are incredible lemons with which to make lemonade. But Jurgen is primarily a man-motivator, not a visionary (or much else). To maintain his relevance in the US program, he has to convince us the American mentality is somehow flawed, which makes Jurgen seem kind of like an abusive boyfriend. To that end, he had to cut Donovan, the biggest and most concrete counter-point to Klinsmann’s wayward philosophy. Catching even US Soccer by surprise, he made the cuts hastily, after only 8 days of camp and before the send-off series of friendlies. Having already made up his mind, Jurgen couldn’t risk Landon performing well in the send-off games. He instead awarded spots to three German-American dual-nationals that had played, between them, fewer than 2 competitive games for the United States in the past four years but claimed tickets to Brazil after a mere week of training camp. Months earlier he recruited Berti Vogts, former German national team coach, dismissing assistant coach Martin Vazquez at the proverbial last minute. Klinsmann gave up on his American experiment, and his lack of faith robbed us of all of the chance to present our unique philosophy to the world when it desperately needs it. It would be Klinsmann, after all, that harbored the lack of belief:

“You have to be realistic…to say that [the US] should win the World Cup is just not realistic. If it’s American or not American, I don’t know, you can correct me however you want.”

But there’s hope.

“I want to coach. Not professionally but I want to coach kids…I can help them in bigger ways in life because most kids aren’t going to make it to the level that we’ve made it to. But every kid has the opportunity to be impacted positively and be a better person. Especially with young boys, to be a better person, a better man, a better husband, a better father. Those are things I’m passionate about.” — Donovan on his legacy

Teaching’s in Landon’s blood; both his mom and twin sister are special ed teachers. What if, under Donovan’s guidance, our youth academies end up resembling Buddhist ashrams, instead of the Spartan child factories of Holland or Germany? The idea of US academies turning out world class prospects whose minds and spirits are as rigorously honed as their athleticism and technique brings a smile to my face. For now, a history-changing moment has been averted by hubris and fear, calling up our remembrance of Wallace, McGovern and Gore in 2000. But revolutionary ideas can only be briefly suppressed and someday we’ll bear the fruits of Landon’s unique vision. If the Brazilians shouting “There will be no cup!” isn’t a signal that folks are ready for change, I don’t know what is. We’re in the era of the whistle-blower, the conscientious objector, the striking worker and the revolutionary. It’s a time for role models like Landon, who remain committed to truth, even when it’s unpopular. It’s time for American Soccer to arrive.

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