If anyone can make soccer cool in America , it's San Jose Earthquake Landon Donovan
July 11-17, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.
By Todd Inoue
"LANDON DONOVAN is the Kobe Bryant of soccer." That's the consensus of three 17-year-old Sunnyvale girls who wait at the tail end of a long line of autograph seekers camped outside of the San Jose Earthquakes' locker room on June 22. They hold vigil for an hour and a half after the team's win over the Colorado Rapids, waiting for Quakes forward Landon Donovan to emerge.
Just 24 hours before, Donovan was wiping the dirt from his Nike Vapors in Seoul, South Korea, after the United States had lost to Germany in the quarterfinals of the World Cup. He had three good chances at scoring, including one shot barely deflected by the outstretched fingertips of goalkeeper and behemoth Oliver Kahn. The U.S. team gave its best World Cup showing since 1930, advancing to the final eight for the first time and inducing insomnia for diehards and newbie soccer fans alike.
The next morning, Landon planned to take a couple days off to decompress, but at the last minute he grabbed a red-eye from Seoul to L.A. He landed at noon on Saturday, jumped on a transfer to San Jose and by 7pm was suited up and walking onto the field at Spartan Stadium, where he entered the game at the 85th minute to a standing ovation. Running on adrenaline, he was eager to rejoin his Earthquake teammates on familiar ground and get a touch on the ball.
Today, fresh from a shower and a media session, Landon quickens his step out the locker-room door--not to a private limo or a tinted-window SUV but straight to the barriers that contain a snaking line of kids, adults and young Sunnyvale girls with shy smiles. All the other Quakes have gone through the line and left, but the crowd hasn't receded.
Donovan steps out to the loudest roars but doesn't appear to hear them. He walks down the ramp, picks up a Sharpie pen and, for the next 45 minutes, signs each and every autograph, poses for every picture, returns every compliment with a thank you.
He graciously and tirelessly signs everything: dollar bills, balls, body parts, souvenir programs, ticket stubs, bobble-head dolls of himself, ESPN and Sports Illustrated magazine covers with his picture on it. He inks the very last photo, snapped at 10:40pm with a boys' team shivering in their uniforms, with the same genuine and cordial smile as the first. He is the last to leave.
Landon Donovan's 'Sweet' South Bay Spots
LANDON DONOVAN lives in Los Gatos and says "sweet" a lot. He admits that he hasn't been around much due to commitments with the national team and traveling with the Quakes. Still, he's lived in the South Bay long enough to explore and come up with a list of his favorite things. After home games, the team usually heads over to Britannia Arms and then to his house for video games and milk and cookies.
When reminded he was only 20, and some of the places he mentions require 21-and-over IDs, he replied, "You can go during the day." Yeah, and I'm Rivaldo.
1. Burrito Factory 2055 Camden Ave., San Jose. 408.369.8564. "I love Burrito Factory, the one off Union and Camden. It's so money."
2. Britannia Arms 5027 Almaden Expy., San Jose. 408.266.0550. "We go there after games with the team, it's great."
3. In-N-Out (various locations)
4. Andale Taqueria 21 N. Santa Cruz Ave., Los Gatos. 408.395.8997
5. C.B. Hannegan's 208 Bachman Ave., Los Gatos. 408.395.1220. "I went there one night. That was fun."
6. Nickel City 1711 Branham Lane, San Jose. 408.448.3323. "That place is sweet. I like the old school games--Galaga, Pac Man. I grew up with them. I'm not into all the new school games."
7. Dave & Buster's 940 Great Mall Dr., Milpitas. 408.957.9215. "I love that game Arctic Thunder. That's a sweet game."
Sexiest Man in Sports
In these days of spoiled sports superstars and lounge chairs in locker rooms, try to picture Barry Bonds or Kobe Bryant doing this. As anyone who has ever waited outside a locker room knows, most professional athletes quickly duck out to their rides, roll up the windows, turn up their subwoofers and beat it to their mansions in Blackhawk.
But with a sport that still takes a backseat to NASCAR and the Senior LPGA highlights on the prime-time Sportscenter, Landon Donovan knows his role as goodwill ambassador is different. If professional soccer is ever going to catch on completely in the United States, it is going to take a lot of motivated fans.
"It's more important for us than other sports," Donovan acknowledges when asked about the ritual post-game autograph-signing sessions. "I think that's why soccer fans are so passionate. They have a close proximity to the athletes, they feel they're on the same level as the athletes, and that's important."
Landon gives the Earthquakes and American soccer a formidable offensive weapon. Donovan turned 20 last March, making him just three years older than his Sunnyvale fans. He's a handsome guy blessed with California surfer-dude good looks, recently anointed a spot on Sports Illustrated Women's Sexiest Men in Sports list.
Nike has already signed Donovan to an endorsement contract for the next six years. He joins international soccer superstars Francesco Totti, Hidetoshi Nakata and Ronaldo on the Nike soccer roster.
Donovan's strike against Mexico was his crowning moment during World Cup 2002, one that was repeated over and over on highlight reels. Eddie Lewis took the ball down the left side with Donovan streaking into the penalty area. Lewis put up a perfect cross, and Donovan headed the ball into the net in full stride to put the U.S. into the quarterfinal round against Germany.
During his first week back from Seoul, the national team made the talk-show rounds, but it was Donovan who was appointed the ace face. He dented the couches of David Letterman, The Today Show, Craig Kilborn, Regis and Kelly, and MTV's Total Request Live.
He slept through the World Cup final but woke up in time to throw out the first pitch at the A's vs. Giants baseball game on June 30. He's been nominated (and is probably a shoo-in) for an ESPY Award for Best Male Soccer Player.
Earthquakes general manager Johnny Moore knows the score.
"The word 'huge' comes to mind," Moore says. "One, he's proved he's an absolute class player worldwide. Two, he's honestly a good guy and part of the team, and the guys like him. Three, there's a young cult following starting here that you can see, and it might go beyond soccer fans. There's a whole young audience that [is] looking for a young superstar in [their] age group."
Moore, a Scottish international star and Earthquake great during the team's mid-'70s heyday, points to the fans clamoring at the fence for Donovan. Among the throng there are housewives, elementary-school soccer players, high school guys. Most importantly, there's the most reliable and important pop culture indicator of our time--teenage girls--in droves.
Last week, Donovan opened mail at his Los Gatos home and couldn't believe what he saw. It left him searching for expletives.
"Goddamn, some girl--I got fan mail from Indonesia! This is amazing. Holy shit!"
The Beautiful Game
If the World Cup reminds us of anything, it's that soccer is truly the world's most popular sport, everywhere except in the United States. The hopes that the 1994 World Cup, which America hosted, would push soccer to NBA and MLB levels of popularity have all but vanished.
Major League Soccer and Women's United Soccer Association attendance is down across the board. The Earthquakes have the lowest average attendance in the league (8,648 over seven games this year, down from 9,635 last year), even after winning the MLS Cup in 2001. Many soccer fans still look overseas or across the border for their soccer heroes. Even Landon Donovan, who idolized Italian forward Roberto Baggio, was one of them.
"I wasn't one to watch soccer," he says of his childhood. "I just played and didn't worry about the rest of the soccer world, but Baggio was one that I really admired. I love the way he played. He was like Wayne Gretzky. He was a deadly goal scorer, but at the same time he would make a pass that would beat any defense."
When asked about American soccer players he idolized growing up, he couldn't name one. Donovan realizes he could be the first American male soccer player for kids to recognize, like the male version of Mia Hamm, except the women's World Cup heroine is married and in her '30s. Donovan's age puts him in direct connection with a younger generation of soccer players, the same ones wolfing down orange slices at halftime, going to school in their uniforms and converting their parents to what Pel้ called the "beautiful game."
"When I was growing up, there wasn't a person like that--someone you can idolize or connect with or identify with," he says. "To have kids know every player on the national team, everybody on the Quakes, that shows that it's changing. And it should! There's no reason why every youth soccer player within an hour of here shouldn't be at every game. That needs to change, and they need to be at every game, watching us, supporting us, being our best fans."
Donovan is on track to be the biggest soccer talent the United States has ever produced. His main strengths are quickness and creating havoc for defenders. He has tremendous vision--and is able to squeak balls through and change the momentum of a game with just one or two touches. He's got one of the best two-step accelerations in the game. He can carve up defenses with cuts, and he can take defenders off the ball. His speed makes him the target of double teams, which opens up opportunities for his teammates.
Along with national team member DaMarcus Beasley, Donovan represents a new "lite" generation of soccer player. Donovan's just 5-foot-8 and weighs only 158 pounds, making him quicker, lighter and faster than most goon squad defenses. It doesn't save him from being pushed off the ball, which can be detrimental if Donovan wants to up his stat sheet.
"I could always be a better finisher," Donovan says, when asked how his game could improve. "And I think my defending has come a long way, but I want to keep getting better as a defender. It's more of a mentality. It's not like you don't know how to do it--you know it tactically, and you have to get into the mind-set and do it."
As Donovan works on his defense, Greg Elliott orchestrates the Quakes' marketing blitz. Elliott is the vice president of Silicon Valley Sports and Entertainment Group, which co-owns the Earthquakes with Anschutz Entertainment. It's his responsibility to keep the stadium benches filled, and Donovan provides a promotional juggernaut.
Elliott, too, uses Kobe Bryant as an analogy, pointing to Donovan's and Bryant's common traits: talent, youth, good looks and charisma.
"Right now, we think he's the best player in U.S. soccer," Elliott declares. "We think he's a person who is a lightning rod to bring attention to the game because of his talent, his personality, his looks, the whole package. He has an amazing opportunity to elevate the game from a national-team standpoint and MLS/Earthquakes standpoint just based on his star appeal and abilities. The combination of those two qualities are an impressive package, and I don't think the league has had anyone like that in its history, and maybe U.S. soccer hasn't had anyone like that in the modern era."
Worst to First
In press conferences, Donovan is cautious but truthful with his words. Off the field and away from the microphones, he's Cali casual, peppering his thoughts with "money" and "sweet." He digs video games (see sidebar), and the last CD he bought was by John Mayer. He's into R&B and light alternative, like Edwin McCain or Lifehouse. When asked what songs he knows all the words to, he says hundreds. "I'm always singing."
Landon grew up in Redlands, Calif., near Ontario. In 1994, at age 12, he watched the Argentina/Romania World Cup game at the Rose Bowl and was hooked. He played with a Redlands club team during his youth (he credits his coach Clint Greenwood for giving him the basics) and was a soccer standout at Redlands East Valley High School in California. In 1999, he made Parade's High School All American Team list.
In February of 1999, at age 16, Donovan signed to the prominent German Bundesliga (first-division) soccer club Bayer Leverkusen. Donovan admits he felt regret skipping college but mostly for the social aspects.
"You're going to use little bits and pieces of your high school and college knowledge in your job life, but besides that it's basically just social," he says. "You learn some useless information, but besides that it's not crucial. I missed the social aspect in college. I know there were a lot of things I could have done--I could have partied a lot more, could have had that kind of fun--but as far as schooling goes, I don't think I'm ever gonna use most of the stuff I would have gotten."
Leverkusen was already stocked with first-class international juggernauts like Michael Ballack, Marko Barbic, Lucio and Oliver Neuville, so Donovan rode the bench on the second team. He recognized that being associated with a prestigious club in Germany wouldn't help his career if he didn't get playing time. U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena was finalizing his roster and couldn't see Donovan play.
Leverkusen loaned Donovan out to the then-last place San Jose Earthquakes as part of a complex allocation draft. Leverkusen owns the rights to Donovan, reportedly through the 2006-2007 season, and loaned him to the MLS so he could get regular playing time and mature.
Donovan was originally going to be loaned to the L.A. Galaxy, his first choice because it was closest to home, but because San Jose finished with the worst record in 2000, he became an Earthquake. The only thing he knew about San Jose was the Sharks and the Quakes were here and that it was in California.
"I've never lived anywhere outside of Southern California," he says. "Initially, I was a little tentative, a little scared because I didn't know what it was going to be like here. Literally from the first game I played here--we played Dallas last year at home, and we were losing 1-0--I came in at the 70th minute, and the place absolutely erupted. I felt so special."
Donovan made an immediate impact, helping the Quakes go from worst to first. Donovan finished with seven goals and 10 assists, leading the Quakes to their best season. At the 2001 MLS All-Star Game, Donovan scored four goals and earned MVP honors. He capped the day with a cheeky tribute to fellow San Jose soccer great Brandi Chastain by stripping down to a sports bra after scoring his first goal. The Quakes finished the season hoisting the 2001 MLS Cup with a 2-1 overtime win over the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Donovan began to catch the eye of national team coach Bruce Arena. In 2000, Donovan was an integral part of the under-23 men who finished fourth in the Sydney Olympics. In 15 games, Donovan scored nine goals and notched one assist. Arena called up Donovan and put him into the lineup.
Donovan delivered three goals in the 2002 World Cup, including the excellent header off the Eddie Lewis cross. The match against Germany was a disappointment, marred by a German handball in the box that wasn't called. This was supposed to be pinnacle of his career. But like anything you wish for, it didn't match the fantasy.
"I realized that I've always wanted to play in a World Cup, it's always been my goal," Donovan says. "And now that I've done it, I've realized that it was fun and important, but it wasn't what my whole life should revolve around. As a player, it's a lot different than as a fan watching it. Don't get me wrong, it's not that it wasn't fun or exciting, but it wasn't as important as I figured it would be. I was happy to be back in California and be with my family, whereas I would have thought I would want to stay there forever."
Donovan clearly missed the all-for-one atmosphere of his regular team. The national team is a lot different from the Quakes, he says. It's fun, and they're good people, but the team concept often falls to individual agendas. Players compete for the same spot, and that causes jealousy, bitterness and backbiting.
"I don't like playing under those circumstances," he says. "With the Quakes, if I don't play, I could care less. I just want us to win. Everybody on the team is definitely the same way. There are guys who get upset when they don't play, but if the team wins, they're happy. They want the team to do well, and it's not always the case with the national team.
"To be honest, at the World Cup, I think it shows a lot about people's character--I say this completely honestly--that if I didn't play or didn't start I would have been OK. If the team got to the final eight, and I didn't play a lot, that would have been perfectly fine with me. But a lot of guys, whether it's because their career needs to develop or because they're that competitive they need to play, they wouldn't have been the same way and that kind of bothers me."
World at His Feet
The Earthquakes are working hard to keep Donovan in San Jose. Negotiations between Bayer Leverkusen and Donovan's agent are ongoing (and said to be heating up this week). Landon's agent is pushing for him to stay in the United States, which would help the MLS and American soccer get some much-needed exposure. On the other side is Leverkusen hoping to get some return on its investment.
"If he goes to Europe and plays, the popularity isn't going to be accentuated to the same degree, because he'll be plying his trade on foreign soil, and the game from a European standpoint doesn't get the attention in the States," Greg Elliott says. "If he's onstage here, he can elevate the game daily both from an MLS and national-team standpoint."
"If Landon was my son, I'd give him the same advice," agrees Quakes manager Johnny Moore, who seems to mean it.
"As a player, you want to get stronger, bigger, faster," Moore says. "You want to be at the absolute top at World Cup 2006 in Germany, which would be an unbelievable test. His job is playing soccer, and he has a life outside that job. California is a great place to live, and that's why half the world has moved here, including me. There's more to life than just a job."
For a guy who wants to improve his finishing touch, an extended stint with the Earthquakes and MLS would be a good place to start. Donovan leaves the trapdoor ajar for that "perfect situation" that would attract him to a European club, but that opening is getting smaller and smaller.
Over the past week, Donovan's desire to stay in the United States has strengthened, as shown in his press conferences and post-practice interviews. It's easy to see why. There's a big difference from playing in front of demanding German fans, in piss-poor weather, with a bunch of hot-shot internationals who resent you because you took their spot, to playing in sunny California in front of adoring fans.
"I personally believe it's the best thing for him," says Moore. "As a player, the best thing for him is to stay here another two years. He's 20. He's got the world at his feet. At 22, he'll be a far better player. At 22, kids are just coming out of college. He's way beyond that. At 22, he'll be physically stronger, he'll be mentally sharper, his game will have two more years under his belt. The money will come, but 22 is young enough to take that huge jump."
Before he left for Seoul, Donovan received advice from his family, agent, teammates and friends. Everyone said, Wait until after the World Cup. It's going to have an impact on you one way or the other, whether you want to go to Germany or stay here. When he touched down in America, his mind was already made up. One transfer flight later, he was on the grass at Spartan Stadium.
"Going to Seoul didn't change anything," says Donovan. "I showed myself that I can compete and succeed to some extent on the world's greatest level and I think that's enough for me. I don't need to go Europe and do anything special to show myself, or anybody else. I've already showed myself I can succeed, and that's enough for me. I just want to be happy. And staying here would make me happy."
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