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A Power Teammate: Landon Donovan
April 2003
Round Not Oval (USSoccer.com)

The United States National Soccer Team did more last summer than advance to the quarterfinals of the World Cup for the first time since 1932. The players did more than impress the rest of the international soccer community with their talent and enthusiasm. Most importantly, the team demonstrated to the United States and to the world that no single individual can win a game on the soccer field. Every shot, every stop, every goal, is the culmination of numerous moves on and to the ball done by a series of players working together for the win.

From the body blocks of keeper Brad Friedel to the runs by Demarcus Beasley, all players on the U.S. National Team rose to the challenge presented in the advancing rounds of the World Cup. The players weren’t worrying about personal stats or scoring a goal for themselves on every run. Instead, everyone worked to get the job done in the best way possible at the time, whether by passing, tackling, making a run, or getting himself open. The 2002 World Cup squad established how much power lies within the word ‘team.’

Yet, as fans, we continue to pick individual athletes to track and emulate; and, in this vein, this month’s edition of Round Not Oval focuses on U.S. power forward Landon Donovan, a player who we could easily tout as the star of his team, the role model for all youth soccer players in America, a top scorer, one of the most talented individuals on the squad. But he’d rather we didn’t talk about him that way. Not even as he continues to be recognized across the country as the new face of American soccer. Not even after he scored a clinch goal last Saturday against Venezuela to seal the 2-0 victory for the U.S. team.

“Really, I’m just me, not a role model,” said Donovan in this month’s RNO cover interview. “My idols growing up were always Wayne Gretzky and Magic Johnson, not because of their stats or because they were stars, but because of how they handled themselves with their teammates. They both had a similar style—they led without being the guy that did everything for the team. They weren’t vocal, they just took whatever they could and did whatever they could to make the team win. They scored, rebounded, found their teammates, found the holes, took out defenders, left someone open to score. They had that vision, that well-rounded quality, an idea of what being on a team really was.”

Donovan certainly has a well-developed concept of what a team should be after playing for several U.S. National Teams in different age groups, playing in the Bundesliga in Germany, playing for the MLS and the San Jose Earthquakes, and, of course, competing on the international stage with the national team.

“Obviously, the World Cup was a huge success for everyone,” said Donovan. “I don’t know if anything can match that experience. Even though we didn’t make it all the way, it was exhilarating. Coming back was hard. It wasn’t a huge let down or anything, coming back to MLS, but I’ll admit that it was definitely hard coming back to this after accomplishing so much in Korea. My main concern was staying focused and staying motivated after the World Cup."

"Physically, even, all of the traveling, all of the appearances last summer, wore me down. I was exhausted even if I didn’t admit it, and it fried me mentally. But it’s worth it, all of it, for what its done for American soccer. We’re a lot more recognized now. People still recognize us, and it’s almost been a year now. It’s pretty cool that’s its made that big of an impact. For Major League Soccer, it did everything that we wanted it to do, as far as bringing more advertisers and sponsors on. Let’s just hope that we continue to make the league better.”

Many of the top-level American-born national team members choose to play in one of Europe’s many professional leagues, garnering international experience on a daily basis and competing against some of the best players ever to play the game of soccer. Yet Donovan has chosen to remain in the United States, competing for the San Jose Earthquakes and participating in MLS tournaments. Again, for Donovan, the decision to remain in the United States to play has more to do with the team than for any other reason.

“My thought process regarding the decision not to play in Europe was based mainly on my experience last time (in Europe). It didn’t do too much for me as a player. The teams didn’t have a stake in me the way they do here. The MLS has done so much for me, I owe it to them to give them some years. They’ve taken care of me, let me play entire games, watched and helped me develop as a player. I’ve done well, and I don’t want to just say, ‘See you later.’ I’d like to let them capitalize on what they’ve produced. Because really, I am not the sole factor in being the player I am today. There are hundreds of people who have helped me to get to this place. The decision after the World Cup, to stay in the U.S., wasn’t too difficult. Everything pointed towards me staying, loyalty to the league, and my personal preference to stay. I love my life in California.”

Not that the experience Donovan did have in Europe wasn’t helpful or rewarding. If anything, it helped him figure out what he didn’t want from a soccer team.

“I was in Europe (with German Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen) from age 17-19,” said Donovan. “At that age, you’re still absorbing everything and figuring out what makes you tick as a player and a person. It was just that basically from the onset, the day I got there, their mentality didn’t match my own. Even on the U-17 team, the kids didn’t want to pass me the ball, because if you’re doing well as an individual, one other person from the team is getting kicked off. It’s hard to stay focused on what you want to accomplish as a team when you have a lot of money, fame, and competition thrown into an already tough situation."

"As a non-German it was frustrating. In the coach’s mind, if you’re equal to one of the German players, they’re going to choose the German player. And then you never get a chance to gel with your team, so it’s hard to learn and improve. I wasn’t that much better at that point. But, as far as positives from the experience, I learned how people operate and how the business of soccer operates. I learned that it’s not always fun when there is money involved and it’s your job. I’m glad I went. I matured a lot in necessary ways. I came back and realized how different my problems were from my friends. Sometimes I want to be naďve again, but that’s OK.”

What’s the next step for Landon Donovan? He’s spent time in Europe, competed in the Olympics, played with a landmark World Cup team, and he’s only 21 as of this past March 4. It’s too early to think about life after soccer, and too late to think about life without soccer. Life is about soccer.

“I’ve learned a lot the last six to seven months,” said Donovan. “It was always easy to be motivated before. There was always a goal to play in the Olympics, then from there to play in the MLS cup, and then to go to the World Cup. Now, I’m going through a bit of the ‘where do I go from here?’ scenario. I like to find different ways to motivate myself, fun different ways to keep myself in the game. I’ll play a game dedicated for someone, for example, I’ll tell one of my friends, ‘Hey, I’ll score a goal for you tonight.’ I put more meaning into my games now. And of course, there are always the big games, that you get naturally psyched for.”

Donovan reiterated through the interview that although he has talent, it took a lot of work by him, his family, and his coaches to develop that talent and help him grow into the player he is today.

“I was very blessed growing up,” explained Donovan. “My mom always let me play as much as possible, drove me around, everything. I’m a firm believer that you’ve got to let your kids do different activities when they’re young, and as a parent you’ve got to do whatever it takes to let them do it. A lot of people never get that chance, to develop talent they may not even know they have."

"We weren’t wealthy, but the leagues always helped out. We never had to pay the dues if we couldn’t afford it, and other parents would drive me around to get me to practice and games if my mom couldn’t. It’s amazing, really, fans see who you are today, but they rarely think about all the people in the background who helped you get there.”

Although he’s only 21 years old, Donovan is already on his way to becoming the type of player he always admired growing up—a player who gets it done without asking for applause, a player who believes in his team and who finds ways to stay motivated. He doesn’t play out of any desire for personal acclaim. He plays because he wants to give something back to the soccer community that supported him for so many years. Landon Donovan is a team player in every sense of the word.

Jill Beauchesne
Round not Oval



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