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June 07, 2010
American soccer's most accomplished and enigmatic star, Landon Donovan embarks on the defining tournament of his career with a knowledge that has long eluded him: what it takes to play like a champion
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June 07, 2010

Good Isn't Good Enough

American soccer's most accomplished and enigmatic star, Landon Donovan embarks on the defining tournament of his career with a knowledge that has long eluded him: what it takes to play like a champion

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"I definitely got the 'fear no one' part down," Donovan says, deadpan. "Our whole team—we had this brash, youthful stupidity."

When the U-17 team played D.C. United, the reigning MLS champion, Donovan got into the faces of some of the pros. That inspired United coach Bruce Arena to call him a punk, a description he does not regret even as he coaches Donovan 12 years later. "He's an amazing person who has matured so much," Arena says. "But yes, he was a punk."

Donovan pleads guilty. "I was obnoxious," he says. "I wish I knew then what I know now. But I guess everyone feels that way as they get older."

At 17 Donovan went to play professionally for Bayer Leverkusen in Germany, a hard experience for everyone involved. His mother was opposed to the move, but Donovan pleaded with her. He signed a four-year, $400,000 deal—"all the money in the world to a 17-year-old," Tristan says—and left for his own apartment, his own life.

He was not ready, not close. Donovan was extremely lonely—he and Tristan would have long, emotional conversations on the phone. And on the field, his creative, high-risk game did not fit at all in the strict, conservative, relentless world of German football. Donovan would get booed when he turned over the ball, something that had never happened to him before. He was soon on the bench, another new experience.

"They just had no use for my style of soccer—not at that age, not from a kid who hadn't proven anything," Donovan says. "Thing is, that was the only way I knew how to play. I was never taught to keep my mouth shut. I was never taught to just work hard and wait my time. It's not like I wasn't trying. I was trying. I just didn't know."

He felt cheated. Here he was, the wunderkind of American soccer, and the Germans just could not see it. Donovan proved the point to himself by winning the Golden Boot as most valuable player of the 1999 U-17 World Cup in New Zealand, a tournament with such precocious talents as Ghana's Michael Essien, Spain's Mikel Arteta, Brazil's Adriano and Germany's Thomas Hitzlsperger.

"As great as that was, it was probably a bad thing," he says. "I went back to Germany and said, 'Look, I was the best player at the tournament; I should definitely get a chance.' And they said—not unreasonably, I should add—'Well, you haven't done anything here.' "

He continued to do amazing things for the U.S. At the Sydney Olympics coach Clive Charles was reluctant to unleash him (drawing, among other things, a couple of angry Internet postings from Donovan's father, Tim), but when he did, Donovan scored a goal and led the U.S. to the semifinals. But Germany was no more satisfying when he returned. He had been dropped to Leverkusen's third-division squad in the spring of 2000, and later that year he was sent to the fourth division. In frustration he challenged a referee and drew a six-game suspension. Donovan pleaded with his agent, Motzkin, to work out a way to leave Germany and come home. "I talked to him every day," Motzkin says. "He was frustrated." Eventually Motzkin negotiated a loan to MLS's San Jose Earthquakes that would last the better part of three seasons.

Donovan simply did not know how to handle the frustration of Germany. He developed a reputation—one that would stick with him for a long time—as soft, a malingerer, a player who would follow great games with bad ones, someone who melted under the heat of adversity. "I was just a little kid who thought he was better than he was," Donovan says. "And it got so bad that I was on the verge of saying, 'I quit.' "

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