Experiencing a LegenD: Reflections on covering Landon Donovan's career
Landon Donovan is officially retired after capturing a record sixth MLS Cup on Sunday. The all-time leader in goals and assists for both the U.S. men's national team and MLS leaves behind a legacy that will be hard to surpass or match for anyone in the current and next generation of American soccer players.
What was it like to cover such an iconic figure in U.S. soccer? Planet Futbol's staff of writers shares some personal experiences of working with and observing Donovan over the duration of his career.
If I’m going to be honest and give you my deepest personal recollection of covering Landon Donovan over the years, it’s not going to be about watching his exploits on a soccer field, no matter how many there have been. You’ve seen them. I’ve seen them. They reveal a remarkable talent, the best player the U.S. men’s national team and Major League Soccer have ever seen. And I’m not going to write about anything I did covering him for Sports Illustrated, though there was plenty of that, too.
I learned far more about Landon Donovan while writing my 2009 book, The Beckham Experiment, about the whirlwind caused by David Beckham’s first two seasons as Donovan’s teammate with the LA Galaxy. Writing a book is a completely different experience than working for SI, when I typically parachute into a city for a couple days for a magazine story, usually one that talks about how well someone is performing.
Sometimes I wonder why Donovan agreed to provide so much access for my book. He wasn’t being paid a dime. I was asking for a lot of his time. And truth be told, those first two years with Beckham didn’t go well for the Galaxy at all. Donovan was often unhappy with his teammate, who he felt lacked a proper commitment to the team at that point. Yet even as the Galaxy performed progressively worse in 2008, Donovan remained willing to participate and willing to be brutally honest, even when that honesty might not have been in his best interests overall.
We shared several meals together over those two years, in places like Providence, R.I.; New York City; Manhattan Beach, California; and even Zurich, Switzerland. And what struck me most during those conversations and interviews was Donovan’s interest in things outside of soccer. Here was a guy who liked reading books and who took a particular interest in food and what people were putting into their bodies. I gave him my copy of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, and we had some good talks about it. It was clear during that time that there was much more in life to Donovan than soccer, so it doesn’t surprise me that he’s retiring from the sport at age 32.
When my book was finally released in July 2009, it included several controversial comments by Donovan criticizing Beckham. Donovan knew they were coming, and he could have tried to say he was quoted out of context or that his words had been misconstrued. He could have gone after the messenger. But to his credit, he didn’t. He owned his words and took his own share of criticism from some quarters for saying them.
He patched things up with Beckham. And when things turned around for them that season, when the Galaxy reached the MLS Cup final, we spoke again for a new afterword for the paperback edition. Donovan said he had learned a lot from the process and had become a better person for it.
It’s that constant growth process—he’s always learning, always growing—that fascinates me most about Donovan. I think it’ll continue in his post-playing career.
Nonbelievers often wonder how soccer can be so compelling when goals are such a relative rarity. Believers understand that the rarity is a big part of the answer. Goals are meaningful. One can alter your fate. They're worth savoring and waiting for. And that’s why soccer fans analyze and celebrate the smaller things that come in between. A move, a pass, a touch or a tackle – all might be part of the build-up to a goal. Any one of them could light the fuse. At its heart, soccer is a sport of anticipation.
When asked to reflect on Landon Donovan’s career, it’s easy to recall the goals. He’s scored plenty – 182 for clubs in the U.S., England and Germany and a record 57 for his country. He’s the most productive American player ever.
Yet that production tells only part of the story, for Donovan was equally as compelling during the moments and matches in between.
He was so dynamic on the dribble, so dangerous from different spots on the field and so deft with the ball at his feet that he forced you to focus, anticipate and hope every time it came his way. He compelled you to expect the unexpected. That collective inhale – the sense inside a stadium that something magical might be about to happen – is what makes soccer so captivating. Whether he scored or not, Donovan was guaranteed to deliver those addictive moments in between. There has been no sensation in American soccer like watching Donovan latch onto an outlet pass with a full field in front of him, a desperate defense in near disarray. The possibilities were limitless.
They usually were away from the field as well, which is what made covering Donovan so fascinating. He was as unique in front of a microphone as he was when bearing down on a defender, and although he paid a price for that individuality (with some fans and with the current U.S. national team coach), he refused to deviate. For reporters who lament canned quotes and clichés, Donovan was the antidote.
I remember being moved in 2010 when, at a pre-World Cup press conference in Princeton, N.J., he opened up about his divorce, his depression and the demons that followed him after the 2006 tournament.
I recall sitting with three other reporters in a hotel lobby in Orlando, Florida, in 2012, when he first revealed the fatigue that eventually resulted in his decision to retire. None of us anticipated that conversation. SI’s Grant Wahl, ESPN’s Doug McIntyre and Fox’s Ives Galarcep and I stood in a small circle after Donovan departed, trying to process what we’d just heard. Should we all just skip U.S. training and race back to our hotels and write? We were a defense in disarray. (It’s worth noting that Donovan tallied a hat trick a few days later against Scotland.)
I laughed out loud, in a press conference, when Donovan was asked by another reporter what Jurgen Klinsmann said when Donovan exited the field following his national team farewell in October.
“He told me he should have taken me to Brazil,” Donovan said, deadpan, as if it had been scripted.
He was funny and serious, thoughtful yet guarded, somehow passionate and aloof. He certainly was introspective and generous, and he definitely was one of a kind. He kept us on our toes for 14 years. And in the end, that’s why we watch.
I’ll admit that at first, I didn’t like Landon Donovan.
I grew up watching him as a youth player. As a conscious consumer of football in the United States, I’ve never known a time without him. He seemed like a bit of a punk, with the bleached-blonde hair and his showy goalscoring celebrations.
But at some point — probably as I grew up, and possibly as he did, too — I came to appreciate that he did things on his own terms. It didn’t always bode well for his development in a strictly on-field sense, such as when he left Bayern Munich, but it’s hard to hate a guy for wanting to be happy.
In many ways, Donovan’s career path has reflected the current state of the American player.
Future generations will perhaps be more willing to take the steps he didn’t, as with the multitude of youth players jumping the ocean to European clubs early in their careers.
Donovan didn’t have the benefit of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, although he was on board with the U.S. National Team Residency Program. What we see as his weaknesses have slowly been addressed in his career for the players who came after him.
More than anything, the U.S. can thank Donovan for being its guinea pig. Through watching him closely, those in charge can learn how far the U.S. has come in terms of development — and how far it still has to go.
For being that bellwether and for his individual moments of brilliance, Donovan has been the most important American player. As a college sophomore, I screamed and cried as Donovan scored against Algeria in 2010. As a newly minted soccer writer, I shook my head as he went on his hiatus in 2012.
Both moments were important, and I’ll remember him for both. Eventually, I’ve reached a sort of equilibrium that goes beyond like or dislike. When he revealed his battle for mental health earlier this year, which a great number of players face but never speak about publicly, that respect level only increased.
It’s appropriate to appreciate everything Donovan has done for the American game, but rather than dwelling on it, the next step should be to ask how the U.S. can do better. Nothing will change Donovan’s status as a pioneer, but with any luck, he won’t be considered the best American player for much longer.
It’s time to evolve again, just as Donovan’s generation provided not just through the man himself, but through the players around him as well.
I remember two main things from the first time I spoke with Landon Donovan 10 years ago. The first: I was ridiculously nervous. Of course I was. I was 18 years old, just getting my start in soccer writing, and was still unprofessional enough that I arrived late to the BayArena for Bayer Leverkusen's game against Mainz that night. Surrounded by grizzled pros in the press box, I barely felt like I belonged.
Meanwhile, at 22, Donovan was well on his way to becoming the best soccer player the U.S. had ever produced. He made his first Bundesliga start that night. This was 2004, and neither I nor Donovan could know what the next decade would bring. But it was pretty clear where Donovan was heading, and I assumed his demeanor would reflect that.
Which brings me to the second thing I remember from the first time I met Landon Donovan: How quickly my nerves faded away. I may have been new to the writing game, but I had been around long enough to know how aloof players could be toward the press. That's no fault of theirs, of course. Pro athletes aren't paid to be personable, nor should they be. I had already accepted that, and discovered that often the walls players put around themselves can get taller and thicker with the more eyes that are on them.
I waited in the tunnel at the BayArena expecting Donovan to ignore me like so many other players had in the past. When he came through the tunnel, I gathered my nerves, and introduced myself.
"Hey, how's it going?" was his response as he stopped and shook my hand. Set against my expectations, this action registered in my mind as if he had given me a fist-bump and a nonchalant "'Sup, bro?"
It was all I could do to ask my next question -- a simple one about what it was like to make his first start with Leverkusen.
"Oh man, it was great!" he said. It was the first time I had ever had a player say "oh man" in response to a question, and also the first time I'd heard a player express genuine excitement about pretty much anything (remember: I had just started doing this).
My recording of that interview has long since been lost, and if I heard it now I'd probably cringe at my nervous state, which I'm guessing was painfully obvious. But in the moment it really did feel like I was talking with a peer. Landon Donovan was the first famous American player that talked the way people my age did, handled themselves the way we did, and wasn't afraid to show any of that.
As such, it seems completely appropriate that he became the poster boy for soccer’s rise in the United States, thanks largely to a swell if interest in the sport from people his age and mine. Donovan was the star that spoke to them, just as he spoke to me that night in Leverkusen.
"It's really fun to play with that team," he told me after that game, a 2-0 win in which he worked multiple neat combinations with future stars Dimitar Berbatov and Andriy Voronin. “They make the right runs, they make the right passes...It’s a joy.”
One week later he reached what, in retrospect, is an underrated turning point in his career -- a second-leg Champions League clash at home against Liverpool in which Donovan succumbed to pressure, played horribly, and felt the inevitable backlash from the press, the fans, and even the club itself. He would make three more appearances with Leverkusen, all as a late substitute.
Most would have hardened in the face of such adversity. Donovan kept on being himself. That’s why, as he hangs up his boots, his journey makes me think about my own, and that of everyone else that came of age with Donovan as the face of U.S. Soccer. We all must sometimes face people we’d otherwise have nothing to do with, and deal with dire situations that test our resolve.
I won’t go so far to say that Donovan showed me the answer to those questions. But he definitely showed me the right way to answer them.