A Feel for the Game

Landon Donovan's introspective nature may have made him a polarizing figure for soccer fans, but for American sports fans he was the face of the game

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LOS ANGELES — Landon Donovan once explained it to me this way: He’d be on the pitch, in the middle of a soccer match, and he would feel himself getting sucked into the ground. These questions would get into his head, crazy questions, like, “What are you even doing out here?” and “When will this thing be over already?”

What other athlete talks like this? Who else lets you inside those kinds of doubts? In those moments, Donovan said, he looked for inspiration … anywhere. He hoped for a song to play over the speakers that would remind him of why he loved playing soccer in the first place. He scanned the crowd to find a familiar face, maybe his twin sister Tristan, in the hopes that it would energize him and galvanize him and make him five years old again, when kicking soccer balls into goals flowed from him the way the force flowed from Yoda.

“Play soccer as long as it’s fun,” his mother had told him again and again. He would be in one of those funks, and he would hear her voice, and he would ask himself: “Is this fun anymore?” He looked around the field, saw all the players going at full force, and he sensed that none of them were asking themselves these kinds of questions.

“Quitting,” he told me. “That was more real than you would think.”

* * *

This was what I keep thinking while observing Landon Donovan Day, a Los Angeles Galaxy celebration of all things Landon. The day was ostensibly built around Landon Donovan’s last home game on Oct. 19 (a 2-2 draw with the Seattle Sounders), though technically he will return for the playoffs. It is more like an excuse to celebrate the all-time leading scorer in Major League Soccer history and, by most practicable measurements, the greatest-ever American soccer player, who will play his regular-season finale Saturday at 3 pm ET on NBC.

“Thank you LD,” signs are plastered all over the grounds. Ushers walk around wearing giant No. 10s standing straight up on their heads. Fans hold up signs, all sorts of signs, many with painted hearts. And, of course, video tributes flash on the scoreboard.

One of these tributes is a piece of performance art called “This or That,” in which Donovan is presented with two options and, like Neo from the Matrix, asked to make his choice.

Lakers or Clipppers? (“Lakers,” Donovan said).

Kings or Mighty Ducks? (“Kings,” he said).

The Real Housewives of New York or the Real Housewives of Orange County? (“OC,” he said).

And so on.

Anyone familiar with Donovan’s habits will recognize the hesitant pause between each question and answer. Even something as silly as “Dodgers or Angels?” seems to fill his mind with unease. What’s the right answer? What will people think?

There never have been easy answers for Donovan. When the “This or That” choices devolve to “Lady Gaga or Miley Cyrus?” Donovan finds his mind frozen. For what seems a long time, he considers and contemplates the talents and foibles of the Millennial pop divas, and finally Donovan finds himself left with the only answer that makes sense to him.

“Both,” he says.

* * *

The single most thrilling sports act on earth right now is scoring a soccer goal. There was a time when it was probably a knockout punch but now the one sporting thing that will make them stand in Beijing, make them roar in Rio, make them scream in Tel Aviv and make them go crazy in Miami is kicking a soccer ball into the net. It animates the senses in every corner of the world.

One wonderful thing about the ability to score goals is that it is a mysterious talent. Nobody seems to know for sure why some people can score goals and some people cannot. Yes, of course, there are qualities that are beneficial for the goal scorer. It certainly helps to be fast. It helps to have a thundering shot with both feet. It helps to be tall so you can score on crosses in the air. It helps to have great balance, helps to have an uncanny sense of space and time, helps to have a fortune-teller’s anticipation.

But there’s also something about scoring a goal that just about every soccer person I’ve ever spoken with chalks up to something mysterious, to wizardry, sorcery, black magic and voodoo. “He just knows how to find the net,” is the baseline soccer cliché when all the other soccer clichés have been used up. Among the dozens of people I’ve spoken with through the years about Landon Donovan, this is the inevitable fallback position. Donovan knows how to find the net.

He always did – Donovan’s story, I’ve written before, is the story of a child prodigy. In his first ever game, he scored seven goals. He was five years old, and his mother, Donna, sat among the juice boxes in the crowd, and she was mortified. She sunk into her lawn chair and wished Landon would just let someone else kick the ball now and again. She had only wanted him to play soccer because he was so ridiculously hyperactive. She hoped soccer might tire him out a little bit.

“Kick it to somebody else,” she would remember thinking, but Donovan’s talent for scoring goals simply raged through him – he did not have any control of it then. From the start, Donovan simply did not know how to not score goals.

Landon loved the game then, or anyway he loved being superb at something, which at the time seemed like that same thing. Tristan would recall that her brother always had a soccer ball at his feet, no matter where he happened to be going. Landon just remembers it all coming so easily to him. Soccer balls liked him, they stayed close to him, they bounced happily to him. When he ran, he noticed defenders falling back. When in the flow of the game, Donovan seemed to know before anyone else where the open space would be and how the ball would get there. When around the net, his body would sometimes take over and the ball would hit the back of the net, and he was not entirely sure how he had done it.

At 17, he was awarded the Golden Ball as the most valuable player of the U-17 World Cup, the first (and so far only) American to win the award. It made him one of the most promising young player in the world – and THE most promising American soccer players to come along since, well, ever.

For a country still coming to grips with the world’s most popular sport, this would put Donovan in the middle of the storm.

* * *

John Ondrasik, better known by his hockey stage name “Five For Fighting,” sits at a piano on the Galaxy field and plays his syrupy adult alternative hit “100 Years,” while photographs of a young Landon Donovan fade in and out on the video screen above. Ondrasik is a good friend of Donovan’s, and so he is happy to be the background music to the Landon Donovan tribute in the same way that people used to play piano live while a silent movie flickered on the screen.

Half time goes by
Suddenly you’re wise
Another blink of an eye
67 is gone
The sun is getting high
We’re moving on
Hey, nice shot

This is what Five For Fighting sings while there’s a clip of Donovan scoring a game-winning penalty kick. And what is striking – what is so Landon Donovan about it – is how touchy-feely it is, how VULNERABLE it is in today’s weary world. There’s no question, even while the salute is going on, that cynical Web sites will soon have headlines like “Five For Fighting Awkwardly Pays Tribute to Landon Donovan.” There is no doubt that the Men in Blazers will tweet, “Do you think Landon Donovan is trolling us with ‘Five for Fighting?” There is no doubt that people everywhere will roll their eyes and go, “Really?”

Then, this is exactly WHY this is a perfect tribute to Landon. He never hid this part. He is not like other athletes. He is not going to give 110 percent. He is not going to run through a brick wall. He is not going to eat, drink and breathe soccer.

“People want to put athletes in a box,” he will say. “They want athletes to care about nothing but the sport, to live and die with it. That just wasn’t me.”

After Five for Fighting sings his tribute, Donovan’s favorite ever band sang the national anthem. Of course that band is Boyz II Men. And Twitter buzzes again.

* * *

AP

The critics called him “Landycakes” so often that, after a while, the nickname became something of a badge of honor for his biggest fans. Well, how did you like Landycakes scoring that game-winning goal anyway? Sure, he was sensitive. Sure, he was mercurial. Sure, he never would say, “I’m really enjoying this game,” in the same tone of voice that someone else might use when saying, “Would you please remove that kitchen knife from my thigh?”

But he was brilliant so often. He scored 143 goals in Major League Soccer, and he led his teams to five MLS Cups. His 57 goals and 58 assists for the U.S. Men’s National Team are both records too – and he scored what most would call the most dramatic goal in American history to earn a late win against Algeria and send the U.S. into the knockout round of the 2010 World Cup. He played the game unlike any American of his time, with pace and imagination and a bit of the artist’s temperament. His talents made people care.

Remember how the national argument raged when Jurgen Klinsmann left Donovan off the World Cup team? You would walk into one group and people would be absolutely, positively, 100 percent sure that Klinsmann had done the right thing. “Aw, Donovan can’t play anymore, and he’s too one dimensional, and he walked away from the game, and they have players of the same skill set who are better,” those people would say knowingly.

Then you’d walk a few feet away, into a different group and here people say, “Klinsmann’s out of his mind, Donovan is still the best pure goal scorer in the country, they need his bit of magic, plus they owed Donovan a spot on the team because of all he’s done for American soccer.”

When had America ever argued about a soccer player?

Donovan was, depending on what circle you happened to be in, underrated and overrated, wonderful and frustrating, subtle and soft, a genius and a squanderer, an American original and just another California dude who liked mellow music and wanted to find himself. What he was not was boring. Harper’s had a story headlined “Why I hate Landon Donovan.” What other American soccer player had ever even been worth hating before?

He played professionally in Germany as a kid, floundered, and then came home. Other than a couple of successful loans to Everton in the Premier League – I will always recall the Toffees fan who told the New York Times that Donovan was like “an old fashioned English winger” – he stayed home. He took a lot of heat for not challenging himself in Europe, but there is no doubt that by playing here he had a massive effect on American soccer.

When Donovan joined the San Jose Earthquakes in 1999, Major League Soccer was dying. The league was losing millions, and almost every team played in a cavernous and almost entirely empty football stadium. Gimmicks abounded, such as the hockey-style shootout to settle tie games.

The Kansas City team was representative. They were called the Kansas City Wizards then – they began with the even more unfortunate “Kansas City Wiz” name – and they played in Arrowhead Stadium to empty seats and a massive lack of interest. The team averaged barely 8,000 people per game, many of those giveaways, and there was just a depressing, “soccer is never making it here” vibe to the whole thing.

Now, 15 years later, Sporting Kansas City wins championships in a gorgeous and sold-out soccer-specific stadium that features some of America’s most rabid soccer fans. This is how it looks across the country now. Soccer stadiums are 90 percent full. The American Northwest has become a hotbed of soccer. Cities around the country are trying to get into MLS. Well, you know how much soccer has grown in America the last twenty or so years.

How much of this was Landon Donovan’s doing? People will argue about it because people always argue about Donovan. But there is no doubt he was the star attraction while it happened or, to put it in Landonese, the Nick Lachey of soccer’s 98 Degrees.

* * *

Farewell tributes in sports, all of them, eventually lead to backlash. How sick were people of Derek Jeter when that marathon praise parade finally ended? How sick of Jeter was Jeter himself? So, it is not surprising that Bruce Arena is ready for all this Donovan tribute stuff to end. Arena loves Donovan. They have been through a lot together. It was Arena who called Donovan “a punk” back in Landon’s younger, cockier days. But they have won three MLS Cups together now, and they hope for a fourth, and Arena deeply admires the way Donovan plays the game.

But yeah. Arena’s sick of the tributes. He’s ready to get back to soccer.

“I understand how Bruce feels,” Donovan says. “He’s the coach. He doesn’t want these distractions. … I don’t want them either.”

Ask Donovan how he himself feels about all the fuss and you get a sense of Donovan’s wavering personality.

“I’m exhausted,” he says.

“But this has been incredible,” he says.

“But I’m exhausted,” he says.

This is a crossroads, of course. Donovan doesn’t know exactly what he wants to do. He talks about going to college. He talks about coaching kids. He talks about doing some television work. He talks about finding a project that is completely unexpected, something nobody would ever have thought would interest him. He doesn’t know what that project is. He’s excited about the future. He’s nervous about the future. He’s Landon.

You might remember that back in the 1970s, Howard Cosell often would be voted as the most popular sports broadcaster. He would also be voted as the least popular sports broadcaster. This was because he was the essential broadcaster, the one who people simply could not ignore.

That has been Donovan too. He has played joyous soccer, and he also walked away from the game because of burnout. He has scored goals that were like miracles, and he has wondered if he was meant to even play this game. He has inspired crazy love, and even crazier revulsion. Landon Donovan has done the hardest thing for a professional athlete to do. He has made people feel.