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Donovan says the realization came over him gradually but also all at once. He scored two goals and played some of the best soccer of his life in helping the U.S. reach the final of the 2009 Confederations Cup. Then in January he went on loan to Everton in England's Premier League and for the first time had real success in European club soccer. Donovan scored a couple of goals, created numerous chances and was named Everton's player of the month in January. Fans who had been skeptical ended up loving him. Those chants—"U-S-A! U-S-A!"—in the last home game of his loan were in his honor. Toffees manager David Moyes wanted to keep him.
"To me," longtime Everton fan Peter Howard told The New York Times, "he's an old-fashioned English winger." There is no higher praise in England.
Donovan says his success at Everton was hugely important, but probably not for the reasons people might expect. It isn't because he proved himself on such a stage. It isn't because, at 28, he established himself unquestionably as a world-class player. It isn't because he doused the final doubts about himself.
"No, here's the thing," Donovan says. "I proved something to myself. I proved to myself that I could play at a high level game after game. I couldn't do that before. I always needed something outside myself. I used to be on the field and think, 'Maybe I'll hear a song that will remind me of my family or where I came from or my wife. Maybe the crowd will get really loud, and that will lift me up.' I realized I don't need that."
As the World Cup begins, American eyes will follow Landon Donovan as he wears the traditional number 10 that marks him as a playmaker. In 2006 Arena asked Donovan to be a leader on the World Cup team, and Donovan admits he simply wasn't ready to do it. He played passively, and the U.S. went three and out. Now U.S. coach Bob Bradley asks him once again to lead with his aggressiveness, and Donovan feels sure he's ready. "I'm proving it to myself all the time," he says. "I can play at a high level and bring the best out of myself no matter what the situation."
That's why Kansas City matters to Landon Donovan. He's not getting any outside help here. He's playing on a dreary night in front of a sparse crowd on a field too small to give him a chance. Donovan finds himself constantly surrounded. There's no chance he can break free. His great speed—"He's probably a half step slower now, but he's still almost always the fastest player on the field," Arena says—is all but useless here. His cough stops him cold. His creative gifts will not be summoned for this game; Arena figures his team's best hope is to try long passes again and again in the event something lucky happens. It's artless soccer.
Throughout Donovan's life he would check out of a game like this. But not this night. He pushes. He prods. At one point he manages to break the defense, create a reasonable scoring chance. He doesn't score, but he comes close. And he's trying.
"This is what I'm supposed to be doing with my life," Donovan says. "And I need to embrace it. In the past I needed something to get me going. Now I know: If I want to have a good game, it's right here."
And with that, Landon Donovan pounds his chest, where his heart is.
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