He pauses, as if he's done with the answer. Then he says this: "Quitting soccer—that's a lot more real than you might think."
For every child prodigy that you know about, at least 50 potential ones have burned out before you even heard about them.
—ITZHAK PERLMAN, violinist, in a New York Times interview
"People have a hard time understanding this," Bruce Arena says, "but just because a player is great at 16 does not mean he will be a world-class player at 20. Look at Freddy Adu."
This is the name that comes up, again and again, when you talk with people about Donovan: Freddy Adu. He was another American soccer prodigy—a phenom who at 14 joined MLS and appeared in a commercial with Pelé, and who at 20 will not be part of the World Cup team in South Africa. Player after player, coach after coach, talks about how the struggles of Adu are what can happen to someone who faces too many expectations and is burdened with too much promise at a young age.
But maybe that's wrong. Adu is not what can happen. Adu is what will happen, most of the time. "A child prodigy is, by its nature, a self-destroying artifact," Peter Gay writes in Mozart, and the world is littered with stories of brilliant young talents who could not improve, could not cope, could not find motivation, could not stay interested, could not deal with failure. Freddy Adu is not the exception. Landon Donovan is the exception.
"I think Landon just refused to allow himself to settle," his Galaxy teammate and close friend Chris Klein says. "He never stopped and said, 'Well, I've learned everything there is to learn about the game.' He never stopped trying to grow. He never was content."
Misery had a lot to do with his success. Donovan was miserable in his early 20s. Being on the bench in Germany made him miserable. The sky-high expectations in the U.S. made him miserable. And, perhaps more than anything, he found his motivation drifting.
Donovan insists that by this point he considered quitting soccer altogether. His mother had always told him to play the game only if it was fun, and it had stopped being fun. "I'd call my agent pretty much every day, and I'd tell him, 'I don't want to do this anymore. I'm done. I'm over this.'
"It was everything. The pressure. The expectations. That was all part of it. But it wasn't just that. It was where I was as a person. I just didn't know. All my life, all I've ever wanted to do was play. That's it. And when it stopped being fun, I just didn't want to do it anymore."