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2005 Sportsman of the Year

My Sportsman Pick: Landon Donovan

Posted: Wednesday November 2, 2005 12:23PM; Updated: Wednesday November 2, 2005 5:20PM
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Landon Donovan
For Landon Donovan, the allure of playing back home in California and helping promote soccer in America was too great to pass up.
Peter Read Miller/SI
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By George Dohrmann

Landon Donovan may be more deserving of this award next year, after the 2006 World Cup. If he leads the U.S. back to the quarterfinals or even farther (a soccer fan can dream), then he'd be worthy of being the first male soccer player picked as SI's Sportsman of the Year.

However, I'm going to jump the gun by a year for a couple reasons. As my colleague Grant Wahl reported, Donovan's behind-the-scenes negotiations before the first World Cup qualifier ended a nasty labor dispute between the United States Soccer Federation and the national team players and averted a catastrophe that would have killed the momentum the national teams and MLS have created over the past decade.

Sure, Donovan played well during qualifying and is shining again in the MLS postseason -- pushing the Los Angeles Galaxy farther into the playoffs than they deserve -- but you don't become an SI Sportsman candidate for merely performing on the field. The winner should transcend and redefine his sport, like the U.S. women did while winning the 1999 World Cup (on their way to SI's honor.)

Donovan's maneuvering to get a deal done wasn't as glamorous, but it was important for soccer's long-term future in the States. Many soccer fans are going to disagree with my second reason for tabbing Donovan: He left Bayer Leverkusen to return to MLS.

American soccer fans wanted Donovan to succeed in Europe the same way DaMarcus Beasley has with PSV Eindhoven. It would have given them ammunition when people question the skill of U.S. players. But by leaving Leverkusen, Donovan was doing more than running home to his fiancé. He was challenging the notion that to be great you must play in Europe.

Donovan might end up being wrong, and he might be stunting his development by playing the short MLS season with the likes of Pablo Chinchilla as a teammate. But if you don't respect his decision, then you're missing the big picture -- which Donovan sees quite clearly. If U.S. Soccer is to continue to improve, MLS must keep growing.

In coming home, Donovan took the reigns of the league and announced he would lead it into the future. It might be a fool's errand to try and make soccer big here, but give Donovan credit -- and the Sportsman award -- for being ambitious and brave enough to try.

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Sports Illustrated will announce the 2005 Sportsman of the Year winner on Friday, Dec. 9, at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. Check back every weekday until then to read more Sportsman picks from SI writers.