LIVERPOOL, England -- It was, I have to say, one of the cooler goose-bump moments I have witnessed in a long time. As Landon Donovan took what was probably a goodbye lap after Everton's 5-1 win over Hull City on Sunday, the home fans at Goodison Park stood and cheered the 28-year-old American who came here a European washout and stands ready to depart, just 10 weeks later, as a beloved figure in this soccer-mad town.
And then, like a low rumble at first, but then as loud as a Lake Placid lullaby, the chant began:
U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!
Only later did I come to understand that some in the stands were actually booming:
They do not want Donovan to leave Everton when his loan from the Los Angeles Galaxy ends next Monday and he has to return to California for the start of the MLS season. Not the fans, who were likely seeing his final home game. Not his teammates, who literally held Donovan aloft, jolly-good-fellow style, after his goal and assist on Sunday. Not Everton manager David Moyes, who said once again that he wanted to try to extend Donovan's loan.
And, it should be noted, not Donovan himself.
When he finally had a quiet moment nearly an hour after the game, I asked Donovan if he wanted to stick around these parts instead of flying back to LAX, the airport code that could just as easily describe the pressures of the league he's rejoining compared to those of the Premiership.
"Yeah," answered Donovan, looking as comfortable in his gray suit and open-collared dress shirt as he does fitting into this Everton team. "It would be nice to stay."
That's out of his control, though, and he knows it. Donovan signed a four-year, $9 million contract with MLS in December, and Galaxy coach Bruce Arena has insisted both publicly and privately (to Moyes) that Donovan will be expected back in Los Angeles next week per the terms of the loan agreement.
The Galaxy may need the reigning MLS MVP, not least because David Beckham won't rejoin the team until after the World Cup, but let's be honest: Even the vast majority of U.S. fans want Donovan to stay here, where he could test the limits of his potential and best prepare himself for this summer's World Cup.
Moyes clearly agrees. "I think we would be keen and Landon would be keen," the Everton manager said. "But we'll respect the Galaxy and Bruce and their situation over there. But he's here certainly for one more week ... so there's a wee bit of time maybe next week to see if there's any [chance of extending Donovan's loan]. If there's not, you can see what the supporters thought of him."
There is an irony to the most likely scenario that would allow Donovan to stay. The MLS players may go on strike before the start of the season on March 25 if they can't sign a new collective bargaining agreement with the league. (The previous one expired in late February.) Donovan is an active voice in the players' union who wants to see a deal get done for the good of the players, but he also knows that a strike would give him the opportunity to stay longer at Everton. (Arena has acknowledged that the Galaxy would consider extending Donovan's loan in the case of an MLS work stoppage.)
Perhaps that helps explain why Donovan has remained quiet publicly of late, declining most interview requests as he has settled into a new environment here. But he did agree to speak after the game on Sunday, taking questions on the edge of the same field where only an hour earlier he had run his farewell lap and bathed in the adoration of the Everton faithful.
"As a person it feels good to be wanted," he said of the U-S-A chants he'd heard. "And as a player obviously it does. But I'm just appreciative of the opportunity I've had here, and I think they appreciate what I've given too, and that's a good feeling."
Donovan had joked after the game that it was probably the last time he'll hear cheers from English fans, considering the U.S. meets England in both teams' World Cup opener on June 12. And yet England has done Donovan and the U.S. a favor during this loan, giving him the chance to play major roles in victories over Manchester United and Chelsea and boost his confidence for a U.S. upset against The Three Lions.
How much of a boost? "A lot," Donovan said. "The biggest thing is you know that you can compete and play against any player in the world, no matter who they are. And you have that sense [already from national-team play], but until you do it week in and week out against the best teams game after game, then you really get that feeling, like, 'OK, not only am I capable of that, but we as a team are capable.' "
When Donovan arrived in England in early January, he was followed by several hanging questions. Could he hack it in the world's richest league after going through three unsuccessful stints in Germany over the years? And would he be able to make an impact if his loan was going to last only 10 weeks?
Now we know the answer to those questions: Yes. Looking back, the most important part of Donovan's stay took place during his first week, when he impressed Moyes enough to earn the start in a game at Arsenal. Not having played a game since the MLS Cup final in November, Donovan was in shape and ready, and from the start you got the sense that he fit into this Everton team. With Donovan providing an assist, the Toffees nearly pulled off a historic win against Arsenal that day, and still settled for an encouraging 2-2 tie.
"I think the bit that would be surprising was how well he hit the ground running in the Premier League," Moyes said. "It's not easy for a lot of foreign players who come in to do well. I think what happened is he went in against Arsenal, played well, the team played well, and suddenly he realized, 'Hey, I'm not out of my depth here.' Because he'd been to Germany a couple times and it maybe hadn't worked for him. I think the players here made it very easy for him. Tim Howard and Phil Neville have certainly helped him settle in."
For Donovan's part, he explained that he wanted to enter his brief time here with a blank slate. "I didn't have expectations purposely because I didn't want to think it would be this or that or the other, and I just came and said, 'Whatever comes I'm going to deal with,' " he said. "Thinking back, would I have expected to play the first game and then play however many games in a row? Probably not. But why not? And so as each day came, as each game came, I just said, 'Whatever it presents, I'm going to take it and go with it.' "
Now that Donovan has done well here after his three German misfires, it begs the question: What was different about this Everton experience? The player, the team or the league? I'd argue that it's all three. Certainly Donovan was welcomed into Everton's team, a process that was helped by his friend Howard, the Everton and U.S. goalkeeper. (During his loan to Bayern Munich last year, Donovan had to deal with a club board that acted like it didn't want him there, even if soon-to-be-fired coach Jürgen Klinsmann did.)
The Premiership also suits Donovan a bit better than the Bundesliga, on account of its rat-a-tat-tat pace, requirements for skill at speed and fitness demands (though I'd still contend that Donovan might even fit in better in the slightly more technical Spanish league).
But the biggest change has come from Donovan himself. As I got to know him over the two years I spent following the Galaxy for my book, The Beckham Experiment, Donovan showed a remarkable willingness for self-criticism. He admitted that he had been immature in 2005 when he bailed on Bayer Leverkusen just a few months into his stay and engineered a transfer back to MLS. And those changes, that maturation process, are still a work in progress. In 2009, Donovan spoke at length about how much he'd learned from the fallout of his critical comments of Beckham in my book about the end of the 2008 season. He certainly felt that way when he criticized Beckham, he said, but he said he'd now be mature enough to express them directly to Beckham's face. It says good things about both players that the Galaxy got past the conflict and went all the way to the '09 MLS title game.
And who knows? The way things are heading, they might be there together again in 2010. With the way Donovan has played at Everton, you'd suspect that he would be the target of transfer offers this summer after the World Cup. The rumor mill has already started, with talk that Chelsea may have an interest in bidding for Donovan as a potential replacement for Joe Cole. And while Moyes himself professed not to be interested in a full transfer ("I don't think that's ever been on the agenda," he said), he would be foolish to come out now and declare his interest so publicly anyway.
Does Everton want Donovan back? The roar of the crowd here on Sunday was all the answer you needed to know. As he took his lap of honor, Donovan passed a sign board that read: THE EVERTON FORMER PLAYERS' FOUNDATION. In seven days time he might be its newest member. And if that's the way it has to be, he reasons, at least he's leaving on a triumphant note.
"Assuming today's the last home game," Donovan said, his eyes still wide with excitement, "then you want it to end that way."