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All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.
—PABLO PICASSO, child prodigy
John Ellinger was coaching the U.S. team at an Under-17 tournament in France in 1997 when, for fun, he brought back a highlight video featuring some of the great moves of the Brazilian superstar Ronaldo. Everyone on the team was having a great time watching Ronaldo, laughing and high-fiving as he slipped between defenders and made the ball disappear and reappear. When the video ended and the rest of the team had left, Donovan wandered over to Ellinger. He was just 16 and making his first international trip with a U.S. team.
"Would it be O.K. if I watched it again?" he asked.
Ellinger handed him the tape. And for a few moments he watched Donovan watch Ronaldo—there was one move in particular that seemed to fascinate him. Ronaldo, standing on the left side, appeared ready to shoot at the far post, but at the last instant he altered his shot and kicked left, to the near post. Donovan rewound the tape a couple of times.
The next day, against New Zealand, Donovan scored on a dead perfect impression of the Ronaldo move to give the U.S. a 3--2 victory.
"He was just different," Ellinger says. "He had pace—he could run away from people while dribbling the ball. You just don't see that at the international youth level. But the thing you noticed even more was how much he understood. He had this feel for the game that you don't see at 17."
Here was the great American soccer hope. Here was a soccer nation trying to do two things at once: 1) win over skeptical American fans who found the sport boring and foreign, and 2) show everyone else that the U.S. could develop world-class players in the most popular sport on earth. Donovan was the answer to both questions—an archetypal all-American kid who also played with the imagination and verve you might find in England or Italy or even Brazil.
"You just couldn't miss it with Landon," says Jimmy Conrad, Donovan's first roommate in MLS. "He was exciting to watch every time the ball came near him. He had ... it."
Donovan knew it too. Ellinger happily admits he coached his U-17 team to be brash. The U.S. had dubbed its youth efforts Project 2010 because it planned to win the World Cup by then. Ellinger wanted that sort of boldness in his players. He gave them a mantra that even now, more than a decade later, they will all repeat with a smile on their faces: "Respect everyone, but fear no one."