Let’s start with full disclosure: I have not been in the same room with Landon Donovan since 2009. Rarely even in the same hemisphere with him. In touch, in contact from time to time, but not in the same place.
My perceptions of him are based on lots of conversations from around 1999 to 2009. I watched him play in high school. I covered him in the 2002 World Cup. I met his wife, at the time, and his dogs. We were not pals, exactly, but I knew him better than I had known any professional athelte, before or since.
So, let’s look at what he’s been doing the past month, which is (as always) considered controversial by some.
First, was the announcement from Bruce Arena, coach of the L.A. Galaxy, that he would not allow Landon (nor Omar Gonzalez, nor Robbie Keane) to go overseas on loan for a couple of months early in the coming year.
This came after Jurgen Klinsmann, the U.S. national team coach, made clear he preferred his MLS-based players to get themselves loaned to a European club over the winter, to keep them sharp ahead of the World Cup in June. Landon expressed himself ready to go, presumably to the English Premier League Everton for a third time.
I suggested at the time that Landon might have been less than enthusiastic about the idea of spending January and February in Liverpool. It’s cold and wet there, and the days are about six hours long, and he is going to be 32 in March and has been nicked up for the past few seasons … and he just did not need that. It’s not like he is going to learn something new about soccer, at this point.
I don’t know that he and Bruce Arena had a conversation about this; Arena knows Landon well enough, probably, that he doesn’t even need to ask. But the end result was Arena giving Landon cover by announcing the “my guys aren’t going anywhere” thing.
Landon subsequently made a trip to Europe. And why not? He makes good money. He likes to see new things. As a human, he is much bigger than the expression “soccer player” would suggest.
(Oh, and subsequent interaction and concentration on global soccer has left me convinced that these guys are the dumbest athletes in the world. Sure, they travel, but few take advantage of that travel, beyond clubbing, and most have been playing soccer full time since they were teens, and basically none of them went to college and a significant chunk didn’t finish high school, either. They are dopes.)
But back to Landon. I will never forget interviewing him at his home in Manhattan Beach, where a half-finished crossword puzzle was on a table. Professional athletes in their 20s do not do crossword puzzles. They hardly read. But Landon is not like other athletes, in many ways, particularly when it comes to curiosity and a pursuit of knowledge.
A week or so before that, my daughter sent me a link to Landon appearing in an advertisement for Seiko. A high-end watch.
That is exactly the kind of endorsement that soccer players, mostly crude and doltish, are not going to get. Tennis players, sure. Golfers maybe. Yachtsmen. And Landon.
Good for him. But think about it: If Landon says a watch is a nice watch, you would believe him, wouldn’t you? Landon would not endorse something he did not believe in. If Wayne Rooney were flogging a nice watch (not that he would have the chance, but follow me here), you would assume it was an entirely mercenary transaction. At the least, you would think, “What does that dope Wayne Rooney know about a fine watch?” Landon is a person we believe, one human to another. How often does that happen, when one of the humans is a professional athlete?
Early this month, Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated produced a blog post in which he embedded a couple of Instagram photos posted by Landon, who apparently was in Prague.
One photo showed what appears to be his breakfast, with a copy of the International New York Times (formerly, the International Herald Tribune, for which I twice worked) in the foreground, and that is so what the sophisticated American traveler does, abroad — eat European breads/pastries for breakfast and read the IHT (as it formerly was known … and yes, it has a crossword puzzle in it).
Then came a moody shot of Landon’s silhouette in a narrow alley, presumably in Prague, and we are left to ponder Landon alone, and thinking about life and civilization. Something deeper than the offside trap, anyway. Except that someone else took the photo, though that second person is not seen (or evident) in the photos. In theory, it could be some kindly stranger.
And the third photo is of the stub for a plane ticket, taking him to Frankfurt. For a plane change back to Los Angeles? For a second part of the trip?
Meanwhile, Clint Dempsey, preferred hero to American fans who like their soccer players to have no interests outside the game, has loaned himself to the London club Fulham, where he can, you know, validate the lives of U.S. fans by playing two months for a relegated-threatened team.
In contrast to the flaky Landon, off indulging himself in non-soccer matters when he ought to be running wind sprints. Ignoring that Dempsey was so often hurt, after going to Seattle in MLS, that he rarely played (nine matches in half a season; one goal) and actually does need some tuning up, while Donovan played regularly for the Galaxy despite nagging injuries that need time away from the game, not in it.
And not many will remember this, but Prague has special meaning to Landon’s life.
In December of 2003, Andre Kajlich, the brother of Bianca Kajlich, to whom Landon would later be married, lost his legs when he fell on a subway track in the capital of the Czech Republic.
As we see in the story I did for the one-year anniversary of the accident, outlining what happened and Landon’s reaction to it … at age 22 he all but took over a whole family’s reaction to an overseas crisis.
That included his paying for all of the travel for his future wife, her parents and her sister, so that they could fly to Prague and see their horribly injured son and brother.
The story includes the Kajlich family’s reaction, circa 2004, to this man-child — and pro athlete — behaving selflessly for week after week.
I believe Landon went to Prague this month because the place has meaning to him. Not pleasant memories, but important memories. Maybe he went to the places he saw or stayed at during that awful Christmas season of 2003, when Andre Kajlich hovered between life and death. Maybe that dark alley was part of the route to the hospital.
Even if it is simply Landon liking Prague, visiting there during the MLS offseason, it has to be far more meaningful to him, as a person as well as an athlete, than getting ready to play for Everton.
This is a guy who can be the best player in American soccer history even without fulfilling the single-focus role some fans demand he embrace. Why that warrants controversy or condemnation, I have never understood.