Landon Donovan is the most electrifying soccer player America has ever produced. Once a well-kept secret, the never-say-die scoring machine exploded on to the global scene during World Cup 2002. Prior to his magnificent performance at World Cup 2010, many soccer insiders insisted he was "The One"—the player who embodied the qualities that might one day transcend his sport and turn on millions of his countrymen to the planet’s most popular game. In South Africa, he delivered on this promise and then some. Largely as a result of Landon’s prowess as a playmaker and leader, the U.S. is on the verge of having a dominant international team. More important, Americans actually care. This is his story…

GROWING UP

Landon Timothy Donovan was born on March 4, 1982, in Ontario, California. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) His mother, Donna, raised him with his twin sister, Tristan, and older brother, Josh, in Redlands, just about 75 miles due west of Los Angeles. She and Landon’s father, Tim, divorced when he was two. The elder Donovan eventually remarried and moved to Nebraska. (Landon has an older step-brother, Tim, and older step-sister, Sheri.) None of the kids saw much of their father. Landon, in turn, developed very close relationships with his mother and siblings, especially Tristan.

Life wasn’t particularly easy for the family. Redlands is located in San Bernardino County, one of California’s more affluent regions. Donna worked as a special-education teacher in the Fontana school district, but she didn’t make a lot of money. Most parents in the area were married and wealthy. This created a point of differentiation between Landon and other kids in his neighborhood which made him uncomfortable at times.

The youngster filled the void with soccer. He was drawn to the game from the time he could walk. Josh, a good player himself, spent hours teaching his younger brother the basics of kicking, dribbling, and trapping the ball. By Landon’s fifth birthday, he was already dreaming big. He wanted to play professionally and bring home Olympic gold for the U.S. He begged his mother to sign him up for an organized league, and she enrolled him on a team with six- and seven-year-olds. He scored seven goals in his first game.

Landon’s rise through the youth leagues of California had more than its share of detours. In a system where money talks, he often went unheard. Ultimately, however, his skills spoke too loudly for coaches to ignore. When Landon couldn’t afford the fees associated with select teams that traveled around the state, his bill was magically “taken care of.” Such concessions were rare, and Donna knew it. She noticed how coaches disregarded Hispanic players from poor families—some of whom seemed as promising as Landon.

Donna wanted all her children to explore a variety of interests and hobbies. For Landon, a straight-A student, this meant taking violin lessons after school. In his freshman year of high school, he got a job delivering newspapers.

But Landon couldn’t ignore his love of soccer. A member of Cal Heat—a club based in Rancho Cucamonga—he received expert instruction and plenty of encouragement, particularly from coach Clint Greenwood. In 1997, when he turned 15, he was accepted into U.S. Youth Soccer’s Olympic Development Program. Donna scraped the money together for him to attend a regional camp in Montana. For the first time, Landon got a feel for soccer at its most intense and competitive levels. He knew he was where he belonged.

It was at this moment that his father reappeared. Tim wanted to play a bigger role in Landon’s life. Was he feeling guilty for abandoning his kids years earlier, or did he crave a piece of the action if his son’s career blossomed? A former semi-pro hockey player in Canada, Tim undoubtedly had insight into some of the obstacles that awaited a developing athlete. Landon cautiously reopened the lines of communication with his dad.

ON THE RISE

Landon’s freshman season at Redlands High School was a spectacular success. He played brilliantly and was named league MVP. In the fall of 1997, he transferred to the superior program at East Valley High, which was also in Redlands. Landon was eating, drinking, and sleeping soccer. Although he played in only 10 games for the school as a sophomore, he picked up 16 goals and 12 assists.

Landon spent most of this in 1997-98 playing for the U.S. national program. He made his international debut with the U-17 team in February of 1998. In a 2-1 loss to Mexico, Landon notched his first official international goal.

Ten months later, at the inaugural U-16 Christchurch Cup in New Zealand, Landon netted 11 goals to lead the U.S. to victory in the six-team international event. In the final against Korea, he scored three times, and the Americans won in a 5-1 trouncing. In all, Landon appeared in 27 games during 1997-98 and topped the U.S. squad in goals (23) and assists (13). The National Soccer Coaches Association of America named him an All-American.

A new season, meanwhile, had begun at East Valley. Again Landon could not make a full commitment to the team. The Wildcats nonetheless welcomed the 16-year-old with open arms. In just a handful of games, Landon collected 15 goals and 19 assists. His performance earned him a spot on the 1999 Parade Magazine High School All-American Team.

There was something special about Landon, something that went beyond his obvious skills. Soccer in the United States has been criticized in just about every way. Among the chief complaints is that the players America produces seem to lack the killer instinct other international players have, especially when they are closing in on an enemy goalkeeper. There are a number of socio-economic theories for this phenomenon, but theories don’t score goals and win soccer matches. What excited soccer people most about Landon was his intense, all-consuming desire to win.


 

 

 


Landon Donovan, 2001 Soccer America

     
 

In 1998, U.S. Soccer launched a program called “Project 2010.” The goal was to capture the World Cup within 12 years. Players such as Landon, DaMarcus Beasley, and Bobby Convey were essential to this effort. All were young, immensely talented, and deathly serious about competing internationally.

In January of 1999, with backing from Nike and the International Marketing Group, U.S. Soccer established the Bollettieri Sports Academy as a training home base for Project 2010. There, in Bradenton, Florida, players attended classes at nearby schools in the mornings, and then trained and practiced all afternoon. It was a model that had worked well for the tennis players who had gone through the academy in the 1980s and ’90s, including Jimmy Arias, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Monica Seles. With the tennis boom subsided, Bollettieri had the space and a keen understanding of what it takes to build young bodies and mold young minds.

Another important development was that, for the first time ever, America’s U-17 team had a full-time coach. John Ellinger, whose resume included 24 years as a physical education teacher in Maryland’s public school system, had an immediate impact on the team’s fortunes. That February, Landon and his teammates scored a major upset, beating Argentina’s teenagers, 4-3. Landon, who was growing into a role as team leader, had two goals.

Landon followed this performance with an eye-opening game against Major League Soccer’s Tampa Bay Mutiny. It was an exhibition, of course, but the U-17s beat the Mutiny, 2-0. Landon scored both goals.

All was not well with the Americans, however. In Jamaica, they failed to secure an automatic berth in the U-17 World Championship, which was scheduled for the end of the year in New Zealand. Needing a win over the host country, the U.S. came out flat, and the match ended in a scoreless tie. Landon showed his frustration when he charged into the Jamaican goalkeeper late in the contest. The stunt earned him a red card and a one-game suspension. He admitted afterward that his actions were stupid.

Whether Landon realized it or not, just about everyone in the soccer world—both in the U.S. and abroad—was watching him very closely. Aside from his transgression at the end of the Jamaica match, he was displaying skills and maturity far beyond the vast majority of players his age. Already people were calling him the most promising American ever to hit the soccer scene. Some in Europe went as far as to tab him the “next Michael Owen.” Owen, a teenage striker for England, dazzled World Cup crowds in 1998 and was the youngest player to make his country’s international squad during the 20th century.

In March, Landon became the youngest player ever called up to the U.S. U-23 team. Feyenoord of the Netherlands Honor Division, Pris Saint-Germain, and English powerhouses Manchester United and Arsenal all invited him to try out for their clubs. MLS, meanwhile, was hoping to lure him to its “Project-40” development program.

Germany’s Bayer Leverkusen, however, pursued Landon more aggressively than any other club. The team’s interest peaked after Landon’s stunning performance against Argentina. Bayer had experience with American players, having signed Frankie Hejduk off the U.S. squad after the 1998 World Cup. Now the club sent scouts to watch Landon just about everywhere he played. In April, he wowed them during the Montaigue Tournament in France, netting three goals in three games. He continued his sparkling play a month later while on tour with the U.S. U-17 team in Italy. Bayer needed no further convincing. The team inked Landon to a four-year deal worth a reported $100,000 annually. Soonafter, he signed an even more lucrative endorsement contract with Nike.

Though his mother (now Donna Kenney-Cash after remarrying) was not thrilled about her 17-year-old son living so far from home, Landon jumped at the opportunity to play professionally in Germany. His father agreed with his choice. Both felt that the instruction he would receive and the competition he would face would benefit him tremendously. Landon left for Germany in the spring of 1999.

Adjusting to life in a foreign country was much more difficult than Landon anticipated. He didn’t speak German, and most of his teammates were much older. The only familiar face was that of John Thorrington, a member of America’s U-23 team. Landon was on the phone constantly, either to his mother and sister back in California or to his father in Nebraska. Talking out his problems with Tristan was most helpful of all.


DaMarcus Beasley,
2000 Soccer America
     
 

Landon only enjoyed himself in Germany when he was on the soccer field, though even there he was lost at times. The German system demands discipline. Not a second is wasted in practice, and tardiness is not tolerated. In matches, players are expected to execute their club’s gameplan flawlessly. Though Landon sometimes felt suffocated by this regimented approach to the game, he quickly learned where his game was weak. He worked hard to refine his skills in those areas. He began to anticipate plays earlier, gaining a better understanding of when to attack and when to fall back on defense. He controlled the ball more confidently and became more adept at beating defenders one-on-one. He also developed a more dangerous and efficient scoring touch around the net.

Landon’s progress with Bayer seemed to suggest that he was on the fast track to Germany’s First Division. But management saw things differently. The braintrust of Berti Vogts and Rainer Clamund grew frustrated by what they viewed as mixed loyalties. Landon spent weeks at a time away from the club to train with the U.S. In August, he helped America capture the bronze at the 1999 Pan Am Games. Landon got the game-winner—his first international goal for the U.S. national team—against Canada to put his country on the medal stand. Three months later, he joined his U-17 teammates in New Zealand for the World Championship; the Americans had finally earned a spot in the 16-team tournament by defeating El Salvador in a home-and-home playoff series several months earlier.

The U.S. squad entered the event with high hopes. The Americanshad competed in the past six U-17 World Championships, advancing to the quarterfinals twice. The team’s best finish was fifth in 1991; its most embarrassing moment, however, came in 1997, with a 4-0 loss to tiny Oman. Two years removed from this disaster, the 1999 U-17 club was unquestionably the best America had ever fielded. Sporting an overall record of 23-7-11, the U.S. was unbeaten in its last 20 international matches. Landon, who had scored 32 goals in his last 35 games, was part of a strong nucleus that included Jordan Cila, Kyle Beckerman, co-captain Nelson Akwari, Convey and Beasley.

Playing in Group A, the U.S. opened the tournament with a rousing 2-1 win over host country New Zealand. Landon led the charge, scoring the decisive goal late in the second half. Up next was a tough-minded Polish squad. Again Landon was the hero. This time he found the back of the net on a penalty kick, America’s only tally in a 1-1 tie. Against dangerous Uruguay, the Americans played with supreme patience. After withstanding an early barrage, they settled into a scoreless defensive struggle. In the 90th minute, Oguchi Onyewu scored on a header set up by a pass from Beasley. The U.S. celebrated a dramatic victory. By taking its group, the U.S. moved on to the quarterfinals against arch-rival Mexico. In a classic battle, America won 3-2.

That created an interesting match against Australia in the semifinals. Both teams had surprised opponents by advancing this far. The Australians featured a strong defense anchored by captain Mark Byrnes, Adrian Madaschi, and Adam Goulding. Shane Cansdell-Sherriff, a talented offensive player, was also on the squad. After falling behind 2-0, the Americans fought back, with Landon sparking the rally. He scored on a powerful drive from the penalty area to cut the margin in half, and then set up the tying goal by Onyewu. The U.S. lost when the match went into penalty kicks, stalling in its attempt to move onto the final. Three days later Landon and his teammates played uninspired soccer in the consolation game against Ghana. But all was not lost with the 2-0 defeat. For the first time in a decade (and only the third time ever), the U.S reached the semis in an outdoor FIFA world championship. Landon, meanwhile, was awarded the Gold Ball as tournament MVP.

Landon returned to Germany in the spring of 2000, only to find himself relegated to Bayer’s amateur team in the Third Division. The demotion was hard news for Landon to swallow. The quality of play was mediocre at best. By May, despite a strong showing from Landon—which included a hat trick against Rot-Weiss Essen—the club was 16th among the league’s18 teams. The 18-year-old desperately wanted to play for Bayer’s first team in the top-flight Bundesliga. When the club was convinced he was ready, Landon was promoted.

By then it was summer, and Landon had another goal in mind: helping the U.S. go for Olympic gold at the Summer Games in Sydney, Australia. Most American fans would have been happy to make it to the medal round—something that had never happened before. The U.S. was positioned in Group C with the Czech Republic, Cameroon, and Kuwait. All three were experienced international squads with talented rosters.


Landon Donovan, 1999 Soccer Jr
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To their credit, the U.S. players were not intimidated. Coach Clive Charles put together a hard-charging team that was apt to surrender scoring chances, but not many goals. That was thanks in part to veteran Brad Friedel who stepped in when an injury forced goalkeeper Adin Brown to the sidelines. Clearing the way in front of Friedel was a defense led by captain Brian Dunseth, Danny Califf, Peter Vagenas, and John O’Brien. But the club’s real strength was up front where Josh Wolff, Chris Albright, and Conor Casey keyed an attack that applied constant pressure.

America came up big in its opening game with a 2-2 tie with the Czech Republic. The contest’s turning point came just before halftime when Wolff put his team up by a goal. Convinced that the U.S. was for real, the Czechs played conservatively the rest of way. After knotting the score in the second half, they were content to escape with a tie. Landon watched from the bench, as Charles chose to keep his inexperienced young striker out of the fray.

The Americans played well against Cameroon in their next match. Down 1-0 midway through the first half, the U.S. took control, running the opposition ragged with attacks toward the net. Finally, 19 minutes into the second half, Vagenas connected on a penalty kick. Though the Americans created several other good chances, they failed to add to this tally. Still, the 1-1 tie put the team into position to advance to the quarterfinals. Once again, Landon was relegated to the bench.

The lack of playing time frustrated Landon. He saw his teammates miss opportunities to score on shots which he was certain he would have buried. The situation was very similar to the Olympic qualifying matches played over the summer. Landon rode the pine for the first two contests before getting a start against Guatemala. He proceeded to score a pair of goals in a 4-0 victory, which actually clinched America’s spot in the Summer Games.

The decision by Charles to sit the youngster drew a steady stream of questions from the media—not to mention the ire of Landon’s father. Tim couldn’t believe his son had yet to set foot on the field. In an open letter to Charles posted on an Internet message board, he chided the coach for settling for a pair of ties when Landon’s goal-scoring touch could have spelled the difference in both games. The coach responded that his team was playing well, and Landon’s time would come.

His time did come, in the 30th minute of America’s match against Kuwait. On the line was first place in Group C and a berth in the quarterfinals. With the field slick from a driving rain storm and Kuwait’s defense out of sync, Charles inserted Landon into the lineup. From the moment he entered the game, Landon dominated the action, moving the ball to open teammates, hustling back to help out on defense, and pressing towards the net whenever possible. The U.S. seized a 2-1 advantage in the second half on goals by Califf and Albright. Kuwait stepped up its intensity, but Landon thwarted any chance of a comeback with a late goal that sealed a 3-1 victory. For the first time in history, America had advanced past the opening round in Olympic soccer competition.

That wasn’t the only highlight of the tournament for the U.S. The team next beat Japan on penalty kicks (5-4) in a thrilling contest. Landon entered the game in the first half and again played brilliantly. Charles surprised some onlookers by sending him out for one of the PKs. Cool as a November day, Landon hammered his kick into the net.

In the round of eight, the U.S. finally met its match. Against Spain, Landon and his teammates looked sluggish, never got into any sort of rhythm, and lost 3-1. Nonetheless the Olympics had been an unqualified success for America, and Landon was a major reason why.

A month later, in the finals of preliminary qualifying for World Cup 2002, the U.S. faced a critical match against Barbados. In second place in its group behind Costa Rica, the Americans needed a clutch effort to stay ahead of Guatemala, which was only a point behind in the standings. The group’s top two teams would move on to the six-country regional finals.


Josh Wolff, 2000 Soccer America
     
 

Given the importance of the Barbados contest, America’s new coach Bruce Arena surprised many by leaving five veterans off the roster: goalkeepers Kasey Keller and Friedel, defender David Regis, midfielder Tony Sanneh and forward Jovan Kirovski. In addition, Claudio Reyna was out due to a suspension, while Eddie Pope, John O’Brien, and Brian McBride all were nursing injuries. Landon was one of several newcomers pegged as replacements.

Though Landon had notched a goal in a 2-0 victory over Mexico two weeks earlier, Arena decided against starting him. Joe-Max Moore and Clint Mathis—also talented scorers—got the nod instead. As it turned out, the U.S. didn’t need Landon on this day. After playing an awful first half, the Americans woke up and blew away Barbados 4-0 to move within striking range of a berth in the World Cup finals.

MAKING HIS MARK

The U.S. national team gathered again in January 2001 for an exhibition against China. In a hard-fought 2-1 victory, Landon and Beasley were the stars. Both used their speed and tenacity to force the action, consistently breaking up offensive forays by the Chinese and generating scoring opportunities of their own. Landon assisted on America’s first goal, hitting Brian McBride with a gorgeous pass as he streaked toward the net. Landon hoped his performance had solidified his spot on the U.S. squad, as America prepared to start its next round of World Cup qualifying. Arena, however, had not finalized his roster. Landon was one of six forwards the coach was considering.

Assuming he would be chosen, Landon was going to have a hectic schedule come the spring. He was slated to travel to Trinidad with America’s U-20 team for a qualifying tournament in March, then to the World Youth Championship in June. There was also his commitment to Bayer Leverkusen. Landon had recently been banished to the German Fourth Division, which was barely on par with American high schools. The teenager was stewing over this latest slight, but management were largely unsympathetic. Bayer’s braintrust felt Landon was spreading himself too thin. Until the youngster devoted his full attention to the club, he was unlikely to be promoted. Also working against Landon was an episode that had occurred the previous fall. Upset during a Fourth Division match, he behaved inappropriately and drew a six-game suspension.

Landon became so frustrated that he asked his agentto intervene. Richrad Motzkin flew to Germany and tried to divine a solution. He got Nike involved, certain that the apparel giant’s influence and money would be beneficial. The obvious move was to alter Landon’s contract and allow him to play in another league, such as MLS. But several problems existed. First, Bayer knew it had perhaps the most talented 18-year-old in the world; simply letting him walk away was not an option. Second, MLS had a policy that prohibited players who had signed elsewhere to join the league. There was also the question of which team would acquire the rights to Landon. He preferred to play closer to home for the Los Angeles Galaxy, but the hapless San Jose Earthquakes were technically first in line for his services.

After identifying the various options and stumbling blocks in their first meeting, Bayer, Motzkin, and Nike representatives met later in Columbus, Ohio. This time they were able to come to an agreement. Bayer would “loan” Landon to an MLS club, either Los Angeles or San Jose and in return receive a “transfer fee” in the neighborhood of $4 million. The German club, however, insisted that it retain the Landon’s rights throughout the length of his contract, which ran though the 2003 season.

Meanwhile, Landon concentrated on America’s U-20 team, which was getting ready for matches against Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Trinidad & Tobago. Coach Wolfgang Suhnholz had a tough job. Landon was one of several top players who competed professionally, and meshing their schedules was no easy task. Fortunately Suhnholz found a way to make it all work, and the U.S. breezed through qualifying.


Landon Donovan/DaMarcus Beasley,
2001 Soccer America
     
 

By the time Landon returned, he had officially become a member of the Earthquakes. Though slowed by bruised ribs suffered several weeks earlier, he joined his team for its season opener on April 7. Coming off a league-worst record of 7-17-8 in 2000, the Earthquakes were limping along as well. To turn things around, the team hired Frank Yallop as coach. He hoped to inject new life into a moribund offense that barely averaged a goal a game the year before. Yallop knew that Landon could provide a major boost in this area. On defense, San Jose traded for Team USA veteran Jeff Agoos, who would be counted on to lead a young and developing group.

In their first game, the Earthquakes shocked the Galaxy 3-2, sending a clear message that they were no longer league doormats. Landon got his feet wet in the match, entering as a substitute in the 73rd minute. Three weeks later he was in the starting lineup against Kansas City. Not long after, he notched the first goal of his MLS career in a shutout of the NY/NJ MetroStars. Landon was adjusting quickly to the league’s style of play. He was named to Soccer America’s “Team of the Week” after scoring a goal against Colorado in early June. He collected two more against Los Angeles a week later.

Landon left San Jose briefly for the U-20 World Cup. In a group with Chile, China, and Ukraine, he and his teammates tried not to look past the first round, but expectations were high for a run at the championship. Beasley and Convey gave the squad a pair of talented midfielders. When teamed with Conor Casey and Oguchi Onyewu, the Americans boasted a lethal offensive attack. Coach Suhnholz, however, was most impressed by Landon. In his estimation, the U.S. had never had such an accomplished scorer.

Unfortunately, America showed its inexperience in Argentina. The team won only one match, a 4-1 decision over Chile, and was knocked from contention by Egypt in the quarterfinals. Landon was one of the squad’s few bright spots. Indeed, he took his game to a new level. Throughout the competition, whenever he sensed a weakness in the U.S. gameplan, he plugged the hole. If the team was suffering defensively, he dropped back and offered support. When an offensive strategy failed, he scanned the field for other opportunities.

Landon stayed in that zone when he returned to the Earthquakes. He recorded assists in four straight games and again earned recognition on the Team of the Week. In an amazing turn of events, San Jose stood atop the Western Division standings with a record of 10-3-5. Landon was tied for second on the team with 11 points. His popularity with fans was soaring. In balloting for the All-Star Game, he led all midfielders with 26,151 votes and was named a starter to the Western squad.

The annual showcase of MLS’s top talent proved to be Landon’s coming-out party. Playing in front of his hometown fans in San Jose’s Spartan Stadium, he netted a hat trick in the first 18 minutes of play. He then tallied another score during injury time to secure a 6-6 tie. His four goals set a new record in All-Star competition and won him honors as the game’s MVP.

Landon and the Earthquakes continued to roll in August. He was voted Player of the Week after scoring two goals and adding a pair of assists in a 5-1 win over New England. Despite missing four games, Landon ended the season second on the team in scoring with seven goals and 10 assists. San Jose finished second in the West, barely edged out by Los Angeles for the division crown.

Landon made his postseason debut in a best-of-three opening round series against the Columbus Crew. In a decisive sweep by San Jose, he netted three goals. Next up was the Miami Fusion. After dropping Game 1, the Earthquakes responded with a 4-0 blitz in the second match. Landon chipped in with the game’s first goal and later added an assist. The final game of the series went into overtime knotted at 0-0. Troy Dayak played hero for San Jose this time, putting home a header that set up a championship meeting with Los Angeles.

MLS Cup 2001 didn’t start well for Landon and his teammates, as San Jose fell behind 1-0. Considering that the Earthquakes had gone 0-8-2 in all previous matches in which they trailed, this was not a good sign. Landon, however, chose not to believe in omens. Just as the first first half was drawing to a close, he blasted a shot towards the top right corner of the net that eluded Galaxy goalkeeper Kevin Hartman. The goal changed the tenor of the match. With both teams trying to avoid a crucial second-half mistake, the game proceeded tensely. When neither team scored, the final moved into overtime—only the second time in history that the MLS Cup would be decided after regulation play had ended.

Six minutes into the extra period, San Jose capped its miraculous season when substitute forward Dwayne De Rosario scored from the top of the box. The triumph gave the Earthquakes one of the more improbable championships in the sport’s history. Landon topped all postseason scorers with five goals and two assists.


Landon Donovan, SI for Kids
     
 

Landon’s MLS accomplishments, gaudy stats, good looks, and Nike deal combined to make him America’s poster boy for World Cup 2002. He lived up to his new status during the opening months of the year. In a February match against Italy, he drilled a magnificent shot that hit the post, denying Team USA a tie. In the Gold Cup, Landon again played brilliantly, notching a key goal in a victory over South Korea. In a match against Honduras, he and Brian McBride netted two goals apiece in a 4-0 shutout.

Heading into the World Cup, some thought the Americans seemed cocky. Others believed they were just confident. Coach Arena assembled a versatile club that blended rising offensive stars like Landon, Mathis and Wolff with an experienced defense. Brad Friedel was back in goal.

For Team USA, advancing out of its group would be an accomplishment in and of itself. As the tournament host, South Korea enjoyed the homefield advantage, which had historically played a major role in the World Cup. Portugal, the fifth-best team in the world, was an even tougher opponent. Only Poland appeared to be a patsy.

The opening match against Portugal was expected to be a wipeout. Led by reigning World Player of the Year Luis Figo, the Portuguese boasted a talented group of international veterans. By contrast, more than half the players on the field for Team USA had never logged a single minute in World Cup action. To make matters worse, captain Claudio Reyna was injured and unable to play.

But Team USA caught a huge break early when Portuguese goalkeeper Vitor Baia ran into a teammate off a corner kick by Earnie Stewart. The ball dropped loose in front of the goal, and John O’Brien blasted it home for a 1-0 lead.

Twenty-five minutes later, the Americans got an even stranger goal, this one coming after Landon drilled a crossing pass in front of Portugal’s net. The usually reliable Jorge Costa tried to the head the ball out of danger. Instead he redirected it toward the near post. Baia then attempted to pop the ball over the goal with his fist, but it hit the crossbar and ricocheted in. Team USA later went ahead 3-0 on a header by McBride. Though Portugal fought back, the Americans did a great job neutralizing Figo and held on for an eye-opening 3-2 victory.

Against South Korea, the Americans knew anything could happen. Late in the first half, Lee Eul Yong was fouled in the box, and only a brilliant save by Friedel on the ensuing penalty kick kept the game scoreless. Mathis and O’Brien then teamed up to give the U.S. a 1-0 advantage. But Team USA surrendered its edge in the 78th minute after Ahn Jung Hwan outdueled Jeff Agoos and notched the evener. The match ended in a 1-1 tie, a somewhat disappointing result for Landon and his teammates since they had held the lead.

To advance out of the opening round, all Team USA needed against a weak Polish team was a tie. But that made Poland, already mathematically eliminated, a dangerous opponent. Playing many of their substitutes, the Poles manhandled the U.S., winning 3-1. Only a shocking victory by South Korea over Portugal saved the Americans and enabled them to move on.

In the round of 16, Landon and his teammates faced arch-rival Mexico. The Mexicans had long dominated the United States in soccer, at one time boasting an unbeaten streak that stretched over four decades. But in recent years the Americans had taken five of six matches. Team USA was brimming with confidence. The Americans were further bolstered when President Bush phoned to wish them luck.

Coach Arena fiddled with his lineup, knowing he needed fresh legs to contend with the dangerous duo of Jared Borgetti and Gerardo Torrado. The moves worked perfectly. The Americans counter-attacked brilliantly, and Reyna, back from his injury, played the best game of his life. McBride scored the first goal of the match off a gorgeous touch pass from Wolff. Landon then put the game out of reach with 25 minutes remaining. The 2-0 final was America’s biggest soccer win in more than 50 years.

In the quarterfinals for the first time since 1930, Team USA next squared off against Germany. While no one was confusing this group of Germans with the country’s great teams of the 1970s, experts still gave the Americans no real chance of winning. But Landon and his teammates weren’t initimidated. Many of them had played professionally in Germany and knew some of the German stars personally.

The U.S. also had a little payback on its agenda. When the teams met at 1998 World Cup, Germany had brutalized the smaller Americans. Reyna was kneed by Jens Jeremies with such force in that match that he was literally numb for 30 minutes.

From the opening kickoff, Team USA took the initiative. Landon was all over the field. He made a highlight-reel move past Thomas Linke, pushing the ball around one side of the German defender and darting by him to continue his dribble. Landon then let loose a shot from point-blank range that goalkeeper Oliver Kahn was barely able to deflect away.

Fans are still arguing about this one. Some say Landon was surprised after his fantastic move on Linke and did not react quickly enough when the veteran Kahn charged him to cut down the angle. Regardless, the play seemed to affect Landon for the worst. He had a couple more scoring chances in the first half but failed to capitalize on any of them.

Those missed opportunities proved costly. As good teams do, Germany made the necessary adjustments to bottle up Landon, and then executed the rest of its game plan without a mistake. The Germans pounded the ball inside again and again, hoping for a foul or an open header. Michael Ballack made the play of the game in the 39th minute, heading in a free kick off the foot of Christian Ziege.

Down 1-0, Team USA started strong in the second half and appeared to have a chance at the game-tying goal. Reyna booted a corner kick which Tony Sanneh headed toward the German goal. In the ensuing scramble, teammate Gregg Berhalter flicked the ball over Kahn. The ball hit the arm of Torsten Frings, who was standing near the post. Referee Hugh Dallas could have whistled a hand ball—which would have resulted in a penalty kick—but apparently felt the touch was incidental. That pretty much ended things for the Americans. Germany won 1-0.

Having developed a better appreciation for his place in American soccer, Landon made it a point to get back on the field as soon as possible. Less than 40 hours after the whistle sounded on the loss to Germany, he entered as a sub for the Earthquakes in a match against the Colorado Rapids. Landon received a standing ovation from the 10,000 fans in attendance. With a few seconds left in the match, he hit a teammate in stride with a throw-in, and the play resulted in a goal. San Jose, which had fashioned the best record in the league during Landon’s absence, won 4-0.


Team USA, 2002 ESPN Magazine
     
 

After a quiet offseason, Landon and the Quakes headed into he 2003 MLS campaign facing significant challenges. The Galaxy, led by Carlos Ruiz, were looking to defend their league championship. The experts liked San Jose's chances with Landon powering the offense and Agoos leading a rock-solid defense. But the departures of keeper Joe Cannon and fullback Wade Barrett (both to European clubs) raised questions that would take the better part of the season to answer.

San Jose held its own and battled LA for the division crown. Landon was a marked man regardless of who the Earthquakes played, so he concentrated on tying up as many defenders as possible to create opportunities for teammates. Landon amassed many of his points by waiting until the defense lost a half-step late in games.

As the '03 season wound down, Landon was right there among the scoring leaders. He was the best player on the league’s most explosive team. The MVP race was heated, with Preki, Ante Razov, Ruiz, John Spencer and Landon having great years. A flurry of goals down the stretch—including two against the East-leading Chicago Fire—wasn’t enough for Landon, as Preki took top honors for the second time in his career. Landon finished sixth in the scoring race with 12 goals and six assists in 22 games. The Quakes went 14-7-9 to win the West.

In their opening-round playoff series against the Galaxy, the Earthquakes lost the first game 2-0, and then found themselves down 2-0 in the second contest after just 13 minutes. Behind by four goals in the total-goals format, San Jose not only needed to win, the team needed to score four unanswered goals just to send the game (and series) into overtime. In an historic comeback, the Quakes got their four goals—including one by Landon—to knot the score in regulation. Chris Roner headed in the equalizer with a minute left. After a scoreless first overtime, Landon fed Rodrigo Faria six minutes into the second OT for the clinching goal in a 5-2 win.

In the Western Conference Final, against Kansas City, the Earthquakes went into sudden death tied 2-2. In the 117th minute, Landon reached down for one last burst of energy to net the game-winner.

That set up a showdown with the Fire in the MLS Cup. Chicago had already won the first two legs of U.S. Soccer’s “triple crown,” taking the MLS regular-season title (Supporters’ Shield) and the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Though favored, the Fire had history against them—no team had ever won all three honors.

Unlike the first two postseason rounds, there was no nail-biting for San Jose fans. The Earthquakes scored five minutes into the match when Agoos feinted at a free kick and then Ronnie Ekelund blasted a shot into the right corner from 22 yards. Landon made it 2-0 in the 38th minute when he split the Chicago defense and beat goalie Zach Thornton one-on-one.

Early in the second half, Beasley scored for the Fire to make it 2-1, but a minute later San Jose midfielder Richard Mulrooney drove toward the Chicago goal and looked for Landon. When he spotted his teammate luring several defenders with him,. Mulrooney—who had not scored all year—fired a shot just inside the far post. After Chicago made it 3-2, goalie Pat Onstad preserved the lead by stopping a penalty kick by Razov in the 57th minute. Landon iced the game by tapping a perfect cross from De Rosario past Thornton with 19 minutes to go. The final score was 4-2, and Landon was named the match’s MVP.

Coming off a championship season with the Earthquakes, Landon helped the U.S. open the new cathedral of American soccer, The Home Depot Center in California. The Americans welcomed a strong team in Denmark and fell behind 1-0 at halftime. Landon and his teammates got a break in the 75th minute when a Danish defender clobbered Convey in the penalty area. Landon converted the ensuing penalty kick to salvage a tie.

A week later, it appeared Landon was ready to go back to Europe. Portsmouth of the English Premier League struck a deal with to obtain him on loan until MLS play started in the spring. At that point, Landon would return to the Earthquakes. FIFA, however, immediately terminated the deal.

In February of 2004, Landon, Beasley and Convey lead the U.S. U-23 squad into the Olympic qualifying competition in Mexico. The team was looking to obtain America’s sixth straight berth in the Summer Games. The squad won its first three matches, including an exciting 4-3 victory over a surprisingly skilled team from Panama. Landon scored one of the four goals, while Convey drilled one home, too. The pair was becoming quite a tandem. In a 2-0 first-round victory over Canada, Convey netted both goals, while Landon had both assists.

Unfortunately for the Americans, Mexico halted the the squad's Olympic dreams with a dominating 4-0 performance in the semis. Two months later, the U.S. got a measure of revenge in a friendly match against Mexico in Dallas. Landon dominated the action early on, hitting the crossbar once and forcing Mexican goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez to make an eye-popping save just before halftime. Late in the game, with a scoreless tie looming, Landon broke loose and was fouled just outside the penalty area. On the ensuing free kick, Convey found Eddie Pope, who powered the ball past Sanchez. Seconds later, the referee blew the final whistle to seal America's 1-0 victory.

Landon didn't enjoy quite as much success early in the 2004 season with the Earthquakes. He picked up his play in a match against the Metrostars, a contest that ended in a 5-5 tie. Landon had a hand in each of the five scores, tallying two assists and a goal and forcing the Metrostars to commit two key fouls, each of which lead to a goal.

San Jose went 2-0-1 in its next three, not including a friendly match victory over the Portuguese club, Sporting Lisbon. After sitting the entire first half of the game, Landon was inserted with the Earthquakes trailing 1-0. He had an immediate impact, assisting on a goal by Brain Mullan. He later added two tallies of his won, and the Earthquakes cruised to a 4-1 win.

In the victory, Landon proved again that he could dominate against a prime European club. It was a harbinger of things to come. In June, four years after Landon first played with Bayer, he learned that he would be heading back to Germany. With his four-year loan due to expire in January, Bayer announced that he would play out the remaining four years of his contract in the Bundesliga. The news was devastating for the Earthquakes, who were having problems drawing fans. Without their star, the franchise seriously contemplated moving to another city.

Shortly after the announcement, Landon shifted his focus to World Cup qualifying, as the U.S. prepared for a home-and-home series with Grenada. The Americans opened the two-game set in Ohio with an easy 3-0 victory. Landon assisted on a tally by Beasley. A week later in Grenada, the U.S. overcame sloppy field conditions for a 3-2 win.

Meanwhile, the Earthquakes were struggling, languishing in last place in the West. An easy choice for the All-Star game, Landon was growing increasingly frustrated. This was abundantly clear after a 2-2 draw against the New England Revolution. Landon argued loudly with officials following the match—an incident that cost him $1,000 in fines and a one-game suspension.

Things went better on the international front, as the U.S. faced Jamaica in the next round of World Cup qualifying. One of Landon’s San Jose teammates, Brain Ching, came through in a big way in the first match. After the Jamaicans scored early to go up 1-0, Landon found Ching standing alone in scoring position late in the contest. When he converted the neat feed, the Americans returned home with a crucial point. Landon and Ching led the charge again when the series moved to the U.S. Each netted a goal as Team USA took control of their qualifying group with a 2-0 victory.

A week later, the U.S. scored late again and got another big road point in a 1-1 tie with Panama. But the squad suffered a blow when Claudio Reyna was sidelined with a thigh injury. Without their captain, they found a way to beat El Salvador. Landon was front and center, assisting on the goal by Eddie Johnson that sealed the victory. The U.S. then pummeled Panama 6-0 in their best match of the year. Coach Arena used Landon as a midfielder, and the Panamanians had no way of stopping him. Wearing the captain’s armband in Reyna’s absence, he recorded the match’s first two goals.

Back in San Jose, the Earthquakes managed a surprising 9-7-7 finish and made the playoffs. They didn't last long, however, as Kansas City dispatched them in the opening round.

For Landon, 2004 was a momentous year. Thanks in large part to his strong play, the Americans advanced into the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying finals. Among his personal highlights, he was named U.S. soccer's Player of the Year for the third time. (No other player has won the award more than twice.)


Carlos Ruiz, 2006 Upper Deck MLS
     
 

Landon's next challenge was in the Bundesliga with Bayer. He made a couple of starts in 2005 and saw action in five other games before letting ownership know he wanted to return to MLS. The Galaxy maneuvered its way into position to grab Landon, enabling him to play in his hometown.

LA went 13–13–6 and squeaked into the playoffs. Landon scored 12 times and added 10 assists during the regular season. He heated up in the playoffs, scoring four postseason goals (including a pair of game-winners) as the Galaxy bounced the first-place Fire on their way to a berth in the MLS Cup.

The Galaxy played New England for the championship. The two teams battled to a scoreless tie after 90 minutes. Guillermo Ramirez—a notoriously poor shooter—shocked fans by drilling home the game-winner for LA in overtime. Also in 2005, the Galaxy won the U.S. Open Cup, defeating the Fire in the final 1–0 on a goal by Herculez Gomez.

LA failed to repeat as champs in 2006, but Donovan had a decent yearwith 12 goals and added eight assists. The focus of the year, of course, was the World Cup. Team USA was grouped with Italy, which won the tournament, as well as Ghana and the Czech Republic.

The U.S. dropped its opening match to the Czechs but recovered to tie Italy in the next game. Donovan and his teammates needed to defeat Ghana, with Italy beating the Czech Republic, in order to advance to the knockout rounds. The Italians took care of their part of the deal, but after the U.S. tied the match 1–1 on a Clint Dempsey goal, Ghana answered moments later by scoring the game-winner on a penalty kick. Several missed opportunities in the second half sent Team USA home deeply disappointed.

The U.S. fared better in international competition in 2007, winning the CONCACAAF Gold Cup. Landon scored four times during the tournament.

But it was as a member of the Galaxy that Landon made the most headlines. David Beckham joined the club, which initially pushed Landon out of the spotlight. Part of the English star’s deal called for Landon to relinquish his captaincy. Landon wasn’t happy about the turn of events and scored just eight goals during the regular season. He made up for that by leading the Galaxy to the final of the new North American Superliga tournament. He scored a goal in every match on the road to the championship game. For the second year in a row, however, LA failed to qualify for the MLS playoffs.

That streak ran to three straight seasons in 2008, but little blame lay at Donovan’s doorstep. He had a monster season, finding the net 20 times and forming an exciting attack with Beckham and Edson Buddle.

Beckham went back to play in Europe in 2008–09, on loan to AC Milan, so Landon was given back the honor of captaining the Galaxy. Under his leadership, the Galaxy finished first in the West with a record of 12–6–12. Landon was named league MVP. The Galaxy made it all the way to the MLS Cup, where they lost to Real Salt Lake on penalty kicks. Donovan was one of three LA players to miss their kicks.

Earlier in the year, Landon had better luck leading the US to the final of the Confederations Cup. With Carlos Bocanegra injured, Landon was given the team's captaincy, and he responded with a pair of goals, including one in a 3–2 loss to Brazil in the championship game. That fall, Landon scored on a free kick against Honduras to secure a 3–2 victory and a berth in World Cup 2010.


Landon Donovan, 2006 Upper Deck MLS
     
 

Landon’s leadership on the field was superb in 2009, but for the first time his character was questioned off it. In a book about Beckham's experience in MLS, Donovan was quoted as calling his teammate a poor captain. The story was picked up by media outlets around the world. Landon apologized to Beckham for not taking his concerns to his teammate directly, and the matter was forgotten as Beckham rejoined the club during their run to the 2009 division title.

After the MLS Cup, Landon joined the English Club Everton on loan from the Galaxy. Playing against world-class competition on a regular basis, he flourished, scoring twice and being named the team’s Player of the Month in January. Everton wanted to keep him past the agreed-upon term of the loan, but the Galaxy wanted him back for the start of the 2010 MLS campaign.

The big focus in 2010 was the World Cup. At 28, Landon was now a veteran leader. What Team USA lacked in talent, it made up for in camaraderie. Landon knew that he was the player the team would turn to in crunch time, and there was plenty of that in the Group competition. Indeed, the Americans found themselves with their backs against the wall in all three matches. They managed a 1–1 tie in their opener with England. Their match against Slovenia was a different story. With the Americans traiing 2-0, Landon got his club on the board with a blistering shot from the right side that nearly took the goalkeeper's head off. Bob Bradley scored the equalize,r and the U.S. appeard to score the game-winner on Landon's cross. Unforunately, the goal was disallowed for mysterious reasons.

The 2–2 final score meant the Team USA had to beat Algeria in its third and final match. Several missed shots by the Americans resulted in a scoreless tie after 90 minutes, but that set the stage for a dramatic ending. During injury time, Landon swooped in on a rebound and drilled the goal that catapulted his team from oblivion to the top of the group. It marked the first time since the original 1930 tournament that the U.S. had won its group.

Team USA's magic finally ran out against its old foe Ghana during the round of 16. The Americans lost 2-1. Still, their heroics in winning the group left U.S. soccer fans with a feeling of satisfaction—and clear goals for World Cup 2014.

Will Donovan be part of that team? It's hard to imagine America going into battle without him. But soccer's wonderchild will be on the other side of 30 by then. Some say that's too old for Landon to be Landon. Others insist that his experience and boundless energy will once again make him Team USA's go-to guy.

LANDON THE PLAYER


David Beckham, 2007 Sports Illustrated
     
 

Landon has the whole package. He is quick on his feet and fast in the open field. He has a strong and accurate right leg, and he’s lethal with his left, too. Landon combines these qualities with a scorer’s instinct, which means there is no real ceiling on his potential. And he is constantly on the attack.

Prior to his stint with Everton, Landon’s overseas play had cast some doubt on his skill compared to world-class players. This is no longer in doubt. Not only did he come away from England with great confidence and experience, he saw the difference between what it means to be a good pro and what it means to be a superstar.

What intrigues the experts most about Landon is the part of his game that got relatively little comment until World Cup 2010. Leadership. Whether Landon is leading by word or deed, he always seems to be leading. He demands as much of his teammates as he does of himself, yet he never alienates them or shows them up. And in terms of leading by example, he did so time and time again on his third trip to the big stage.  

Is Landon the greatest player in U.S. history? It may be too early to make that call, but he is certainly on the short list of contenders for that mantle.

 


Landon Donovan, 2010 SI for Kids


 

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