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 World Cup. 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.