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The Pursuit of Happiness
Landon Donovan's reasons for wanting to stay in MLS go well beyond soccer

by Jay Hipps

July 31, 2002 (CSA) — I'll admit that I've been putting off writing this article on Landon Donovan. My desire to write the definitive story on his decision to stay in MLS have been running into a brick wall. No matter how I approached it, it seemed that there was something missing.

Take my conversation with him after San Jose's recent home victory over Dallas. Players usually take their time in the locker room so that the press can ask them questions about the match. Donovan ducked out pretty quickly, though, so that he could get a head start on signing autographs for the hundreds of fans waiting outside for him and the rest of his Earthquakes teammates.

"I'm working on an article about your decision to stay here instead of going off to Europe," I started, watching as he scrawled his signature on item after item. "One of the things I've noticed over the last couple years is that you're developing your ability as a leader on this team. Do you think that would be harder to do in Europe? Is that one of the reasons you'd like to stay?"

I had been thinking about that one a while. I thought it was pretty insightful, really — he has shown a lot of growth as a leader in the 16 months since he arrived in San Jose. During the playoffs last year, it was clear that San Jose was his team.

"A little bit," he replied, "but at the end of the day I just want to be here and play."

It was easy to see he was tired of talking about it. He continued though, to humor me.

"In an ideal world, I could stay here forever and be a captain someday."

That was about it. I could have pressed the issue, I suppose, but the guy had autographs to sign and it really wasn't the best atmosphere for an interview. More than that, though, I didn't want to put him off — I find it's much more fun having a conversation when both people are interested in it. He just wants to stay, not to constantly re-hash his reasons for it.

Here's what I knew so far. I had talked to Richard Motzkin, Donovan's agent, and he had told me that Donovan's decision hadn't been well received everywhere.

"Some people think he's making the right decision, some people think he's making the wrong decision," he said. "But obviously what matters most is (what he thinks), and I wholeheartedly support his decision."

Motzkin had also told me that Donovan was the subject of a lot of interest from foreign clubs, playing in the kind of leagues that most players would be overjoyed to hear from.

"We had multiple calls from multiple clubs in England, Italy, Spain, and Holland." Throw in the interest that Leverkusen has expressed and you've got representatives from all of the leagues which are generally considered to be the best in the world. It went even further than that, though.

"If a Manchester United came and said, 'We want Landon,'" Motzkin told me, "his decision would still be that he wants to stay in MLS."

That took a minute to register. He'd turn down ManU, which ranks with Real Madrid as the most popular sporting franchise on Earth? Clearly, this was an unusual circumstance. So what was it that was keeping him in San Jose?

I went back to my notes from a press conference he had on July 12 and tried to add it all up. He spelled out his decision pretty thoroughly, it seemed, but I still had the nagging feeling I was missing something.

His list of reasons for staying was long, ranging from his enjoyment of California sunshine to his sense of loyalty to the Quakes.

"(When I first came here), San Jose put me in there and they let me play every week and said, 'Do what you've got to do.' I didn't score for a long time and they stood beside me and I just feel loyal to them and I want to kind of give back to them."

OK, loyalty, check. There's a reason to stay. That didn't seem to be enough to reason to turn down all those opportunities, though.

He continued, talking about what he described as "a bitter experience" at Leverkusen and his reasons for being cautious about going back there.

"I don't doubt that I'm good enough or that I could work my way into the lineup, but I don't want to take a chance," he explained. "If the coach doesn't like me for whatever reason, I'm stuck there. That's not a chance that I necessarily need to take."

Once bitten, twice shy — I understood that. Sounds like a sensible approach at this point. Still, there had to be something else.

He went on to mention that his experience at the World Cup and the success of the U.S. National Team had provided its own reasons for wanting to stay in MLS.

"It's a good time for us to get American soccer out there, to push it," he said. "That part of it makes me want to stay and be part of it, to help soccer develop even more like Alexi Lalas and Paul Caligiuri and Cobi Jones and those guys did in their day. I want to help catapault it into the next level."

Hmmm... that's definitely part of it, but I could tell it wasn't the overriding reason.

Then I found my first big clue. It came in a brief series of questions with a writer from 442, the Brit soccer mag that's the last word in attitude as well as football:

442 guy: "Will you miss the opportunity to play week in and week out against the best players in the world?"

Donovan: "I'm already getting that."

442 guy: "If you compare MLS with the Premier League or the Bundesliga, there's quite a bit of difference I think."

Donovan: "How far did England go in the World Cup?"

Silence, for a moment. A rich, beautiful silence, a silence Donovan helped earn for all of American soccer against Portugal, South Korea, Mexico, and Germany.

442 guy: "Do you think you'll miss the opportunity of playing against the best-paid players in the world, put it that way?"

As amusing as that first exchange was, what came next was the eye-opener.

Donovan: "I'm not that worried about how far I develop as a player. I've come to realize that there are more important things in my life and I think I've proven to myself and everybody else that I can compete at the highest level, and for me that's enough. I don't think it's worthwhile for me to leave my family and my friends, especially in light of what happened with 9/11. You never know what's going to happen, so I would rather be spending time here, making less money, maybe not playing at the highest level, in exchange for being around people I love."

It finally started to dawn on me then. The thing that I was missing, that I had such a hard time putting my finger on, was the fact that Donovan has his priorities unusually straight. He is committed, over and above all else, to being happy.

There's an old saying, "money can't buy happiness." For that matter, neither can fame, nor playing at Old Trafford. If Donovan's found a place where he's truly happy, then the situation goes beyond where he plays; in fact, it goes beyond soccer.

"There's so many reasons (for staying)," he went on to say. "I love the Quakes, I love my team, I love the coaches, I love the organization here — it's become a second home for me."

Happiness is the quicksilver of emotions. Try to bottle it, to define it too closely as a means of holding onto it, and it's gone. Better to simply recognize it when you have it and enjoy it.

That seems to be Donovan's thinking. He's not concerned about "how far he develops as a player" because he's not interested in being compared to anybody else, or anyone else's idea of what he should be. He simply wants to live life on his own terms, and he's choosing what makes him happy.

He said as much later, when a French journalist asked him if he would consider going to other clubs in Europe besides Bayer Leverkusen.

"I would possibly, maybe consider something else…" he said. "But if you know what's good for you as opposed to trying something new that might be good for you, why would you leave something that's so good to you?"

Does this mean he'll stay in MLS forever? Probably not. I suspect their will come a day when Donovan is ready to move on, when he'll be ready to graduate from MLS and to take on the myriad new challenges, both on and off the field, that playing in Europe will provide. There will come a day when he'll be happy to do that, you might say. (There's plenty of time — he could play in MLS for another four years before heading off to a new life and a bigger paycheck in Europe, at the ripe old age of 24.)

And, contrary to some opinions, staying in MLS is not likely to hurt his development, either. Donovan has already stated that he's improved more as a player in his time with San Jose than he did at Bayer; he also proved at the World Cup that he measures up at that level.

In fact, he may be better off in MLS than anywhere else, as his agent points out. "People tend to do better in life when they're happy," Motzkin says.

In the meantime, the whole situation reminds me of something that Thomas Jefferson wrote a little over 200 years ago in the Declaration of Independence, about each of us being entitled to "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." Right now, it seems, Donovan has declared his independence from a European power to pursue just those things.

Motzkin begins talks with Bayer Leverkusen officials this week in DC. I hope Donovan is happy with the results.

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