The easiest World Cup qualification in the history of U.S. men's soccer could just as well have been the most difficult. To understand why, you have to go back seven months before last Saturday's 2-0 win over archrival Mexico in Columbus, Ohio, which clinched the Americans' fifth straight Cup berth. Back in January, as the last round of qualifying was about to begin, a poisonous labor dispute had prompted the U.S. Soccer Federation to call up minor league replacements in anticipation of the team's opening match, at Trinidad and Tobago. "If we'd lost that game and [the dispute] had carried on to games two and three, we weren't going to qualify for the World Cup," says U.S. coach Bruce Arena, "and that would have been a complete disaster for soccer in this country."
Instead, the first-stringers took the field in Port of Spain, prevailed 2-1 and set the tone for the U.S.'s qualifying run, which stood at 6-1 before the meaningless Sept. 7 game at Guatemala. But here's what's remarkable: The player most responsible for averting a potential catastrophe was only 23 years old.
Forward Landon Donovan initiated two breakthroughs during labor negotiations, then helped persuade his (mostly older) teammates to buy in. The first key moment came late one night in mid-January, when Donovan telephoned USSF president Bob Contiguglia to see what could be done to break the impasse. "That conversation got us to agree on the terms [that would allow the players] to come back into camp," says Contiguglia, who got a promise from the players not to strike this year as talks continued.
The second breakthrough took place at 30,000 feet, on the U.S. charter flight home after a 3-0 win at Panama in early June. With the negotiations stalled again, Donovan had a long conversation on board with USSF executive vice president Sunil Gulati. When Gulati proposed a modest increase in the federation's payment offer, Donovan went to consult with fellow player reps Brian McBride and Kasey Keller. ( Captain Claudio Reyna wasn't on the trip.) By the end of the flight, labor and management were shaking hands on the framework of a deal, and they reached a financial agreement at meetings a week later in Los Angeles.
The result: With only minor legal matters still pending, both sides expect to sign a new labor deal in the next month, ending any threat of a strike between now and the 2010 World Cup. More than the numbers--a retroactive 50% to 60% pay increase during the current cycle if the U.S. reaches the World Cup quarterfinals again, and a 20% to 37.5% hike between 2007 and 2010, depending on '06 Cup results--the real story is the maturation of the U.S.'s young soccer superstar. "These things are always about relationships, and if you create good ones, you can always find a middle ground," Donovan says. "I don't think either side needs to battle for every dollar. If we're going to miss a World Cup based on that, then that's stupid."
Now they won't. Through Sunday, Donovan had seven goals, tying him with Eddie Johnson for the team lead during qualifying. But as he celebrated with his Germany-bound teammates last week, U.S. flags wrapped around their shoulders, one lesson was clear: Leadership involves much more than scoring goals.