Landon Donovan: All grown up
BY LYLE SPENCER
Landon Donovan is someone Derek Parra can look straight in the eyes without needing to bounce too far on his tip-toes. Should they meet one of these fine days, they'll have a lot to talk about, heart-to-champion's heart.
It's been one amazing year for little guys with big dreams from the Inland region, from Parra's gold and silver, record-smashing speedskating in the Salt Lake City Winter Games to Donovan's inspiring World Cup debut four months later. Landon won't forget every nuance of that glorious Wednesday in Suwon, South Korea, how the U.S. shocked Portugal and the world, 3-2.
This was Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson, Kirk Gibson going deep on Dennis Eckersley, the American college kids outskating the old Russian pros in Lake Placid. This was unimagined, which is why it's so utterly wonderful.
The best stories always are the ones we never see coming.
It's been described as the biggest U.S. soccer triumph since a 1-0 upset of England at the 1950 World Cup, if not the 2-1 decision over Colombia in the '94 bash at the Rose Bowl. Some aficionados reserve a special place for a win over Trinidad and Tobago that put the U.S. in the 1990 Cup and ended a 40-year U.S. absence on the big stage, labeling it as nothing less than sport-saving in this country.
Donovan was 8 years old in '90, a Redlands kid kicking soccer balls in the park until he was tired and sore. He's now an emerging star, a role model, an athlete children want to grow up to be like.
How in the world did it happen so fast?
Just as San Bernardino's Parra accepted no limits for his height (he's a shade under 5-foot-4) and Mexican-American heritage in a sport invented by the Dutch and dominated by long-striding Europeans, Donovan once again has shown that size can be vastly overrated.
Donovan also shows us, if we're patient enough to pay close attention, why the world loves his sport and calls it the "beautiful game." There is purpose in his every movement, thought, anticipation and imagination in his every move from start to finish. He is an innovator and creator in the fashion of his early role model, the Great One, Wayne Gretzky.
At 5-8, and right around the 140 pounds carried by Parra, Donovan is a blur on that vast expanse of green, as swift, explosive and creative as just about anyone, anywhere.
With the whole globe watching, in the match he's been waiting all his young life for, Donovan created the second U.S. goal, an own goal by crestfallen Portuguese defender Jorge Costa on Landon's cross in the 29th minute.
Seven minutes later, Donovan set in motion what proved to be the decisive goal with a pass that led to the pass that led to Brian McBride's header for a 3-0 lead.
"I hit it," Donovan said of the own goal, "and initially the guy (Costa) got his head on it. It's almost like it had eyes for the goal. I was watching, watching, watching, and saying, `Oh my God, it's going in.' "
After Donovan gave way to veteran Joe Max-Moore in the 75th minute, the U.S. held on for dear life.
A second 20-year-old wonder with great wheels, DaMarcus Beasley, was a major player for the U.S., drawing a handful of fouls from dizzy Portuguese players with his Kobe-esque moves.
This country suddenly has a foundation for future greatness in the sport, with Donovan and Beasley leading the charge.
It's just the way Donovan has been planning it since he began chasing soccer balls and dreams in those Redlands parks not so many years ago.
"The World Cup is what I always dreamed about when I was a kid," Donovan said during a quiet moment at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney. "When I was alone in the park with the ball, I imagined myself playing in the World Cup, scoring goals."
He said then that he hopes someday to offer the kind of imagery for kids that soccer stars from other lands supplied for him, given that "there were no big (American) names for me to copy."
Donovan always has been a step or two ahead of others, including those who coached him. He didn't play nearly as much as he wanted in Sydney, and I'm sure he'll always wonder if the U.S. could have improved on its fourth-place finish there if the coaches had turned him loose.
When I asked him that day if he thought he could make the national squad for 2002 -- it was iffy at the time -- he shot me a look that I'd have to describe as disdainful.
"I have as good a shot as anybody else," Landon Donovan said. "Sure, I can make it. I can play at that level. No doubt in my mind."
Clearly, there's never been any doubt in the guy's mind about his destiny. That's one of the reasons he has become a world-class player at the age of 20, with everything in front of him.
Reach Lyle Spencer at (909) 368-9541 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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