Fans, though, will say the scarcity of goals in soccer is the whole point. A goal at the highest level of the game is a miracle. Consider the odds. You have to move a ball across a large field, eluding 10 obstinate foes, without using your hands. You cannot legally pass the ball to a teammate who has raced past the last defender. Once you approach the goal, you must put the ball into a net eight yards wide and eight feet high, guarded by the one man on the field allowed to use his hands. It is, when you think about it, an impossible task.
But it is not impossible. It happens. And this, the lovers of the sport will tell you, is why soccer soars. What it takes to score a goal goes beyond hitting a home run, beyond scoring a touchdown, beyond slipping the puck past the hockey goalie. It is something beyond athletic skill, something that transcends ball handling and deft touch and a powerful shot. It takes, for lack of a better word, magic.
And magic is what has eluded American soccer stars for a long time. Oh, there have been competent U.S. players through the years, even good ones. Goalkeepers, for example: Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel and Tony Meola—as a nation, we are good with our hands. For a time the inescapable American player was Alexi Lalas, a big, strong defender who was not overly skilled but was a master of positioning, self-promotion and beard-growing. Occasionally, but not often, there were creative players, like Tab Ramos (who was born in Uruguay) and Claudio Reyna (whose father played professionally in Argentina before moving to the States). On the right day, under the right circumstances, they could do special things.
And then Landon Donovan just ... well ... happened.
There was no way to see it coming. He was not raised in a soccer family. He did not grow up in a soccer-driven community. "He was just a really hyper kid," his twin sister, Tristan, says. "He had a lot of energy—a lot of energy. He was a little bit aggressive with the other students. ['I think I bit another kid's nose,' Landon says.] We had to leave a couple of preschools. And then we were at this great preschool, and a counselor suggested he play soccer. She said, 'There's a lot of running around in soccer.' "
As a kid in Southern California, Landon spent some time kicking the ball in the backyard with his brother, Josh. He seemed to like it. He was five when he played his first game, and scored seven goals. His mother, Donna, sat in the crowd, embarrassed, quietly wishing her son would let someone else's kid have the ball. But no one else's child knew what to do with the ball. It all came so naturally to Donovan. There was no explanation—there rarely is for prodigies.
At 15 Donovan was taken into U.S. Soccer's Olympic Development Program. At 16 he was getting offers from teams around the world. Gurus in soccer places could not understand how such a player came from America. "In those days," Donovan's agent, Richard Motzkin, says, "the respect for American soccer players was almost nonexistent. Americans were good athletes. Americans were mentally tough. But Americans didn't know how to play soccer."
Donovan knew. He knew how to control the ball. He knew how to anticipate the defenders' moves. He knew where the open spaces were and when to rush in and how to guide the ball into the net. He worked hard, sure, and he was obsessed with soccer—"All my memories of him as a child, he had a soccer ball on his feet," Tristan says—but those instincts for scoring goals and making magic, well ... he just knew.
One of the teachers of the great musical prodigy Franz Schubert said, "He learned from God himself."
"I don't want it to sound like bragging," Donovan says, "but I always had a talent for the game."