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Thinking about a Pair of Hometown Guys, Part II

November 16th, 2008 · 9 Comments · Sports Journalism, The Sun, soccer

I started this about a week ago, talking about/thinking about a couple of kids I knew from Redlands, during my time at the San Bernardino Sun …

Landon Donovan and Ronnie Fouch.

The item got so lengthy, though, that I stopped — after musing about Fouch — and promised to come back for Landon.

So, here we are.

Landon seems to be having issues of his own, even after what seemed to be his best season as a professional. He scored a career-best 20 goals, leading Major League Soccer. A great season even by the standards of a guy who is, without question, the greatest American-born soccer player.

Let’s start with the recent Landon news.

1. He won the Honda Award as “best U.S. national team player” for the fifth time, this week. No one else has won it more than twice.

2. And in that same story you notice references to a development that already was in motion: His tryout with Bayern Munich of the German soccer league.

These seemingly disparate threads are part and parcel of the same cloth.

I know Landon far better than Ronnie Fouch. I saw Landon play in, like, 1998, when he was a junior at Redlands East Valley High School and a rising under-17 player. I covered him at the 2000 Olympics and talked with him before and after World Cup games in 2002. I admired the view from his room in Seoul, at the 2002 Olympics. I spent time in his (first) Manhattan Beach home, round about 2006. I know his mother and his mother-in-law and I did a massively long story on his brother-in-law, or future brother-in-law, who was involved in a horrific subway accident in Prague in 2003.

I had his e-mail address, and his cellphone number and, bottom line, I wrote about him more often and felt like I knew him far better than any first-tier athlete with whom I had contact in my 31 years in sports journalism.

Anyway, that connection is being tested. I’m in Hong Kong, and he’s in SoCal — and now Germany. Even before I left, I didn’t spend much time at Galaxy matches or training because I had no official status as a journalist. And then he didn’t respond to my last few “hey dude, what’s up” e-mails.

Anyway, I saw him a little this year, during televised Galaxy games or national team games, and I may be imagining this, but I think he’s reached a career crossroads. And maybe even a career/personal crisis.

The Landon Donovan I saw this year, in particular, was not the kid I knew in previous years. You could see it right there on the field. It appeared, to me, that he had undergone a transformation, and not a good one. It was as if he had gone over to the Dark Side.

I recall Landon as being scrappy and a little edgy but, at bottom, a guy who loved soccer for its positives. The ebb and flow and the inventiveness and, in the final 30 minutes, its lung-busting endurance test.

The Landon I saw (and read some about) wasn’t the same. When he scored, it seemed as if it wasn’t about celebration, it was about revenge. MLS opponents began complaining about being taunted by Landon. (Here is a clip and some commentary from another blogger unhappy with Landon’s actions this past season. The taunting is just before the two-minute mark.) Somewhere along the line he had picked up a really big chip and placed it on his shoulder, and it was not fun to watch. This was not the guy I knew.

Well, with the flirtation with Bayern Munich, maybe some of it starts to come into focus. Here are some of the threads potentially in play.

–Scarring from the 2006 World Cup. U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena entrusted nearly his entire offense to Landon, and he was overwhelmed by bigger and more numerous defenders. He was flayed for the out-in-the-first-round performance. Many observers seemed to lay the entire U.S. performance at his feet. I believe he was deeply hurt by that.

–The steady rot inside him of the relentless sniping by other critics who have been after him for most of a decade for asking to get away from German club Bayer Leverkusen. It all was quite personal. He was either a momma’s boy or in the thrall of his girlfriend/wife or a guy just too scared to play with top talent. I’ve been reading that nonsense for years, and it ticked me off — and I’m not Landon. He often is referred to as “Landycakes,” and that’s not a compliment.

–The Galaxy’s struggles. This has been a bad franchise for a couple of seasons now. Landon is not used to losing. It has to weigh on him.

–David Beckham. Landon was The Face of Major League Soccer, and then Becks showed up with the Galaxy in the summer of 2007, and Landon instantly became The Sidekick. As time went on, I can envision him, playing with Beckham (whom he respects), but seeing the diminished and lesser Beckham of the 2007-08 vintage, and wondering “why can’t I be a global concept, if he can be?”

Anyway, eager little Landon, would-be standard-bearer for MLS, who said he didn’t need to be overseas to validate himself, the guy who always was available and open and honest … seems to have turned hard. Now he’s hanging out with the Bundesliga, in a country he doesn’t like (and has said so, numerous times), because perhaps he feels as if he has to prove himself to someone — and that’s crazy.

Having lost touch with him, I can’t say for sure. I haven’t spoken to him since, like, March. And he seems a bit removed, of late. Almost as if he has been burned or betrayed a few times too many, and now is a little scabbed over, when it comes to dealing with media. Even someone who knew him when he was 16.

I just worry about him. I wonder if he’s happy, and I doubt it. I feel as if he has let the court of public opinion define himself in his own head, and that’s really unfortunate.

I will be watching from a distance, and rooting for him, because the Landon I knew was the most legitimate, honest and generous human being who, at the same time, was at or near the top of his sport.

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9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Nell // Nov 16, 2008 at 9:20 am

    As a huge fan of Landon Donovan, after reading your words, I, too, am a little worried about him. I don’t want him to turn into one of the cynical athletes. I’ve always loved his openness and honesty in interviews. And I’ve always loved watching him play - I liked his fierceness on the field this year.

    I do hope you keep watching him and trying to maintain a contact with him. I would be super to know what’s going on inside his head. He always seemed like a very approachable athlete.

  • 2 Doug // Nov 16, 2008 at 3:27 pm

    Paul - Until today I hadn’t read your excellent ‘04 story about Landon and the Kajlich family. Wow. I must say I have newfound respect for Landon as a person after reading that. I suspect your analysis of his reasons for going to Germany are pretty accurate. Speed is a crucial part of his game and that won’t last forever. He’s in his prime and if Landon wants to achieve worldwide acclaim it is pretty much now or never. I hope he succeeds in Europe and I hope he does resume contact with you so we can read more articles about this new stage of his career.

  • 3 Galaxy fan // Nov 20, 2008 at 12:03 pm

    Paul, I think the taunting & “dark side” comments you make above are way overboard. He showed some good intensity & had a couple of encounters in just a few games early in the season. They were nothing outrageous, and no different than, for instance, the throat slash against FC Dallas the year before, or other times Donovan has gotten excited against Mexico. Did you watch the whole season? Because it doesn’t seem like you did based on making something out of a very few minor incidents.

    You could even say that your speculation might show good reason why Donovan might be more reserved and less trusting around the media.

    Sorry you’ve lost touch with him & hope you’ll be able to reestablish contact & get us a good story!

  • 4 Micah // Nov 20, 2008 at 12:28 pm

    I think all the negative press about staying in MLS has gotten to him, at the same time he deserves the negative press. If you are a professional athlete it is YOUR JOB to test yourself to the limits of your capabilities and he has always balked at that opportunity. I understand he is comfortable in SoCal but that doesnt mean anything. He owes it to the National Team and to the fans of the Nats to test himself and improve as a player. He simply will not improve anymore in MLS.

  • 5 iscius // Nov 20, 2008 at 12:56 pm

    It should be pretty obvious: soccer is a business.

    I dont know any successful business people who can remain impassive and innocent in the face of outright theft, lies and improper behavior.

    Sometimes you overreach as you compensate for ‘feeling’ so gullible early on, but later just harden as you realize you can do things right, and do them your way, but need to close the world out to remain sane.

    The guy is immensely talented and an inspiration. If he had started this process a year or two earlier, I think he would be commanding a lot of international respect.

    Your comments are compassionate but make clear that you are not him because very people are in his position. I would not begin to know where to judge someone like LD.

    Also, I like the fire in him. You have to be a little nasty. You have to not only physically but mentally dominate your opponent. Ali taunted, oh, a few of his opponents and he is the ‘greatest.’ So dont be so prissy. Let him have his dark side; it has certainly made him a better player.

  • 6 B // Nov 20, 2008 at 1:51 pm

    All your theories are well-constructed, but this is the only one that matters:

    “–The steady rot inside him of the relentless sniping by other critics who have been after him for most of a decade for asking to get away from German club Bayer Leverkusen. It all was quite personal. …”

    I mean, of COURSE he has tried to counter all the dimwits out there who stuck him with the “Landycakes” tag and its accompanying criticism. (That nickname is still in common use, even among some of his fans, which is just idiotic.) What 20something male wouldn’t try to counter accusations that he’s “soft”?

    The whole thing is a shame — the name-calling, not Landon — because what we’ve done is basically turned our best USMNT player into a head case.

    The good part, though, is that his actual soccer skills don’t seem to have been affected at all.

  • 7 Ed // Nov 20, 2008 at 9:52 pm

    “We” did not turn our best USMNT player into a head case. It was that British Wanker with the radio show. He’s the idiot who coined the british sounding term Landycakes. Soon after, every euro wnnabe in the US began to parrott the phrase.

  • 8 Ross // Nov 21, 2008 at 1:27 am

    I think he’s finally figuring out what it takes to be the best, killer instinct. Look at ahletes like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant or Tiger Woods, they want to win every time they play and will do anything in their power to do it. That’s the change and it is for the better.

  • 9 Tom // Nov 25, 2008 at 8:01 am

    Nice article about Landon. Great insight. As a huge fan of his it does make me a little sad and concerned as well. I think he’s had hugely unfair criticism regarding his choice of where to play - and I thought Germany was the worst place he could be in Europe - from my very limited knowledge. I was so proud he wanted to make MLS a success.

    But I think he set himself up for failure in the 2006 WC - or allowed his coach to let him set himself up, I don’t know. I just remember him in interviews talking about the team being among the best in the world, not backing down, etc, etc. I thought he was showing fire, but it felt like a little false confidence. I was like, if the team doesn’t back up all the talk, then I’m going to be a little embarassed - they were showing less humility than the USA basketball team did at the 2008 Olympics! Almost as if they were trying to believe it themselves. And then in the final game….the best player the USA has ever produced, the best scorer….doesn’t shoot.

    And so the justified criticism stacks on the unjustified criticism.

    At the end, I have NO idea why he’s going back to Germany. I have a hard to believing he can’t find a spot on a team not-destined for relegation in the EPL, Spain, or Italy…..or even if he went to one of the worst teams there, he could have a relegation clause. Just too much history in Germany…..that has to be SO much extra emotional pressure to succeed than if he found a spot in another country.

    Best of luck to him, the silent majority of fans are still behind him.

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