Soccer's Poster Boy Landon Donovan: the man who could make America love the game
When Landon Donovan enrolled at East Valley High School down in Redlands, San Bernardino County, a meeting was set up with a guidance counselor.
"So," she asked, "what would you like to do when you graduate?"
"Get a scholarship to play soccer at UCLA," Donovan answered promptly.
There may have been a faint smile.
"Let's think of something a little more realistic," she suggested.
Wise thinking, considering that Donovan -didn't get a scholarship to UCLA. Never even went to college. Today he's 20, locked into a full-time job, and spending his free time playing video games. In fact, at the moment he was telling the story about the counselor, his eyes were solidly fixed on a game of video soccer.
OK, there are points to consider. He skipped college because he leapfrogged clear over the collegiate system and was signed directly to a lucrative professional soccer contract. He was the breakout star from the United States' shocking World Cup soccer run this year, has led the San Jose Earthquakes to the Major League Soccer championship, and was just on national television accepting an ESPY, (an ESPN national sports award) as best male soccer player.
Oh, and the video game? It's his. No, really. There's a digital Landon Donovan figure in the game, and his namesake can use the joystick to make him the star of every match.
"I only pass to myself," he jokes. "I only shoot with myself."
Yep, maybe Donovan should get more realistic with his career goals. He was aiming too low. Instead of hoping to play a little in college, let's raise the sights. How about the Man Who Made America Love Soccer?
"I am fully welcoming and able to take that responsibility," he says whenever he is asked if he'd like to be U.S. soccer's poster boy.
It could happen, you know. Donovan -isn't the only bright young star in American soccer. But he's witty, handsome, flashy and a teenage heartthrob. Asked about his client, his agent, Richard Motzkin, takes a deep breath and unspools a well-rehearsed testimonial.
"Young boys want to be him, young girls love him," Motzkin purrs. "Moms adore him and older males admire him."
Hyperbole? Maybe not. Hear that faint rumble in the distance? Those are drumbeats coming from the north end zone of Spartan Stadium in San Jose. There, a tiny colony of would-be Brazilian-style soccer fans is taking root. They attend San Jose Earthquake games wearing $85 blue and white team jerseys and trendy Euro soccer scarves. And at least once a game the chant goes up in time with the drumming - "LAN-DUN Don-O-van (thump-thump-thump)."
Or wait next to the locker room after an Earthquakes game. Well-schooled by the media relations department, the players head straight for the autograph fence as soon as they shower and dress. But the loudest squeals erupt when Donovan strolls out.
"Landon," screams one of dozens of teenage girls, "I love you."
"Love me?" he says with an easy grin. "You -don't even know me."
That will change. Donovan may not lead the Earthquakes in goals, but most consider him the team's best all-around player. Coaches sometimes say of someone, "Every time he touches the ball, something good happens." That's Donovan.
"You look at him with (young, potential American soccer stars) DeMarcus Beasley and Josh Wolff," says Earthquakes coach Frank Yallop, "and you see that they are different. And the difference is speed. Speed of foot and speed of mind."
That sounds nice enough, but -don't misunderstand. This is epic. This is immense. If anything will do it, this is what will change the perception of soccer in this country.
Because it -isn't as if we -haven't turned out some nice young players. We have. Defenders, mostly. They are steady, rugged and dependable. Wonderful qualities if you want a washing machine. But in case you -haven't noticed, there is no two-handed chest pass competition at the NBA All-Star Game. American fans want to see the flash, the funk, the slam dunk.
"Primarily we've developed defensive players," says veteran Jeff Agoos, a World Cup and Earthquakes teammate of Donovan's. "It was probably out of need. When we play internationally, we've had to defend."
So while, for example, the Brazilians were flashing scissors-kicks back and forth over the ball and playing "the beautiful game," the Americans were doggedly running along behind, slipping and sliding and attempting to stay with them, hoping for a scoreless tie. How inspirational was that?
Donovan, and some of the other American young studs, represent the new breed. Donovan is our very own Brazilian, playing with flair and flash, but born in the suburban USA, raised by the consummate soccer mom, and as American as ESPN. He's the perfect bridge to the new world order.
"One minute," he says, "I am 12 years old, watching the ESPYs and the next I am on stage (accepting the award) looking down at Kobe Bryant. And he looked up and shook his head and just kind of said, 'nice job.' "
How cool is that? Right this moment minivans are pulling up to soccer fields all over this country, discharging kids in cleats and shorts. There is hardly an American kid interested in sports who -hasn't spent some time playing soccer, and yet we -haven't seemed to produce any top players. And here one is, as All-American as Rice Krispies Treats, dominating on the world stage. He's the revenge of the soccer moms.
It should be said that Landon's mother, Donna, may have driven the soccer shuttle, but she is anything but one of those pushy stage mothers. Divorced when Landon and his twin sister, Tristan, were 2 and older brother Josh was 7, the single mom was too busy to plot out a master plan.
"I just kind of drove all my kids to everything," says Donna, a Special Ed teacher. "When Landon was in kindergarten we put him on a 6, 7 and 8-year-old team and he was by far the best. From then on he was on three teams at once."
But, as everyone stresses, that was Landon's choice. He also played the violin, ran track, and played water polo. He was the one who picked soccer. If you doubt it, consider Tristan, born one minute before her brother, "as she reminds me all the time." Her interests were completely different, and that was just fine.
"We call them day and night," says Donna.
"We just got completely opposite genes," Landon says. "She's English lit and I'm math/science."
"If we just met we probably -wouldn't even speak," says Tristan. "We are very, very different."
And yet there is an almost eerie bond between the two. Although they had their sibling arguments, Landon has such faith in Tristan that he has told her if he ever brings home a girlfriend she -doesn't approve of, he will break up the next day.
"I don't know if you can print this," Landon says, "but when she had her period, my stomach ached all night."
Although, as Landon says, Tristan sometimes "-doesn't know what games I'm playing," the two are so in sync that one of them will come home from having a bad day and find, out of nowhere, a message on the phone machine from the other.
"She is the one person that I really, truly talk to," Landon says. "What I like is I think she is more proud of me as a person than as a soccer player."
Can it get any better? Donovan is the toast of American soccer, playing on a team where he is not only wildly successful, but also admired. His family is near his Los Gatos home and his mother and sister regularly travel up for games and visits. He is young, handsome, and building a media buzz.
So naturally, there seems to be only one thing to do - leave the country. Believe it or not, with all the momentum Donovan has generated in America, the most common question he gets is: When are you leaving?
That's because conventional wisdom has it that no one can become a world- class player unless he is playing in Europe against the best players in the world. Donovan hears it almost every day. During a post-World Cup conference call, reporters from European soccer publications asked the question so many times and so many ways, Donovan -couldn't resist a little jab.
"How many games did England win in the World Cup?" he asked pointedly.
That had to hurt. The answer is two, same as Team USA.
"They just -can't get it through their minds that somebody -doesn't want to play in the best league in the world," Donovan says.
But when you see him playing for the Earthquakes you have to wonder. Donovan raves about the San Jose fans and the great weather, but what would English soccer fans think if they saw the pitch at Spartan Stadium? Set up on the football field, it is only 70 yards wide and 110 yards long. A World Cup pitch can be as long as 120 yards and as wide as 80. Players who need open space to create need not apply. This is hatbox soccer.
Donovan plays like a champ in the setting, of course. Yallop has put him at midfield, although he admits "he's a forward at heart." In the confined space it is a perfect spot for him. He can set up plays and make a run or two at key times. But if he were playing on a full-size field, in a sold-out stadium in, for example, England, he'd be playing forward and learning his craft against the finest players on earth. So why -doesn't he go?
The simplest answer is he's already been there and done that. At 16 Donovan was such a soccer prodigy that he took his high-school equivalency test, graduated, and signed a professional soccer contract with the German team Bayer Leverkusen.
For Bayer Leverkusen, a major player on the world stage, to sign an American high school player is huge. Think Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers - except that Kobe would have to learn German.
"I -don't think it's any secret I -didn't want him to go," says Donna Donovan. "He negotiated with me for about a year. It pretty much negated any chance of college and that was the goal."
The driving force was Landon's father. Tim Donovan traveled to Bayer Leverkusen to check out the arrangements, and he was convinced it was a move Landon should make.
"I -didn't want him to," says Donna now, "but I -didn't want him to say he had this chance and -didn't get to do it."
Even now it's hard to picture what a leap into the unknown this was. A 16- year-old kid, thousands of miles from home, thrust into the ultra-competitive German soccer league, living on his own in a country where he hardly knew a word of the language. In a way it was incredible that Donovan managed as well as he did.
He learned "ein bischen" German, enough to get around. He settled into an apartment provided by the team. And he gave the game everything he had.
The result? A miserable experience.
"I had a bitter experience there," he says. "I was only 16. I had no idea, no clue. I probably should have waited."
"It was sad," says Tristan. "I worried about him a lot. He would call and say, 'I'm really lonely. I'm really unhappy.' "
Donovan may have graduated early from high school, but his soccer education was just beginning. He ran smack into a series of obstacles, beginning with the country on his passport.
"For some reason," says teammate Jeff Agoos, who played in Germany in 1994 and '95, "you can be from Costa Rica or Canada and you get a chance, but not the U.S. When they think of us it is only for basketball or football teams."
Looking back at it, playing in Germany was probably a bad idea from the start. The Germans prefer big, strong players. Donovan is 5-feet-8. The Germans are solid and mechanical. Donovan is flashy and creative.
"In any game I have ever played I have never been booed or heckled for something that -didn't come off," Donovan says. "If you'd try something and lose the ball, they booed."
In simplest terms they put Donovan in his place. Sit and watch, they told him.
"Not only did he not play," says agent Motzkin, "he never suited up."
For two years Donovan was not allowed an opportunity with the big club. He was promised a chance - someday. Instead, he played in a lower division, a kind of farm team. He endured the weather and cultural divide. Today when asked if he would be willing to play in Europe, he runs down the list of conditions that hint at what life must have been like as a stranger in a strange land.
"It would have to be where I had a chance to play," he says. "Where there is good weather and friendly people."
"I kind of agree with him about the people," says Donna. "They were kind of abrupt."
Clearly, the German experiment was not going to work out. At the start of his second season Donovan scored a hat trick in a lower division game. No reaction. He went to the under-17 World Cup, featuring the finest young prospects on the globe, and was named outstanding player of the tournament. Nothing. Something had to give.
The negotiations with Bayer Leverkusen were long and complicated. They involved Donovan's contract, American Major League Soccer's obligations, and - to the surprise of no one - money. The short story is that Donovan was offered to the Earthquakes on a kind of lend-lease agreement.
The result was a giddy roller coaster ride that has yet to end. The Earthquakes won the major league championship in Donovan's first season, and that was followed by the World Cup experience. Although considered a player to watch going into the tournament in Korea and Japan, he emerged as a breakout star.
Now he has many options. Bayer Leverkusen, chastened, is suddenly making promises and asking him back. The English teams are sending out feelers. But Donovan is still talking about wanting to "stay (in the U.S.) and being a pioneer. I want to bring it to the next level."
The next World Cup is four years away, but the Olympic Games are in 2004 and the American side is suddenly considered a contender. Better yet, as Donovan says, this time he and Beasley and Wolff -won't be the kids, it'll be "their" team.
Besides soccer, Donovan is doing TV shows, making commercials and modeling fashions in Vanity Fair, GQ and Gear magazines, among others. It kind of makes you wonder what that guidance counselor at East Valley High thinks.
"Oh," he says, "I'd love to see her now."
E-mail C. W. Nevius at cwnevius@sfchronicle. com.
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