The USA’s best soccer player… ever.

Last Sunday the LA Galaxy won the MLS Cup, defeating the Houston Dynamo by a score of 1-0. The result was expected, as the Galaxy had been the best team in the league all season. Actually, it could be argued that they’ve been the best team over the last three years… but they had not yet won the MLS Cup, so they seemed to be particularly focused.

In the end they were just too much for Houston, as their three star players (David Beckham, Robbie Keane, and Landon Donovan) combined for the game winning goal. Donovan was the goal scorer, and as the post game analysis began, Max Bretos announced that Donovan had been named the MVP “even though he didn’t do much other than score the goal.”

This comment seems apropos of Landon Donovan’s entire career. No matter what he accomplishes, people don’t seem to think that it’s quite enough. I don’t need to go into all of his accolades here, but to provide a thumbnail sketch: he was voted the best player participating in the u17 world cup. He was voted the best young player in the 2002 world cup. He’s the all-time leader in both goals and assists for the US Men’s National team (by a wide margin). He’s played in three world cup finals, and been a major contributor in all three.

Playing for his club, he’s won four MLS Cup trophies with two different teams and he’s the all-time leading playoff goal-scorer in MLS (with 20 goals). He won two championships as a young gun providing attacking spark for the San Jose Earthquakes in the early 2000s. He carried a mediocre LA Galaxy team to both US Open Cup and MLS Cup championships in 2005. This year he captained the Galaxy (a team that boasts two players that have captained their respective national teams – Beckham and Keane) to the best record in the league, and capped it off with another MLS Cup medal.

No other field player in US history has a resume that even comes close to this. So why, when you bring up Donovan around a group of die-hard soccer fans do you hear him called soft, inconsistent, and over-rated? Why does he have the pejorative nickname “Landycakes”? Why is he criticized by the press with comments such as this?

“Donovan is a very good soccer player,” said Fox Soccer television analyst Eric Wynalda. “He does so many good things. But I can hear the ‘beep’ from here. He’s backing out of responsibility.”

Donovan’s Failures
There are a couple of reason’s that Donovan is an easy target. The first is that he has had failures in his career. He originally signed a contract to play for top German squad Bayer Leverkusen as a sixteen year-old. After failing to get playing time, he came to the MLS on a loan to play for the San Jose Earthquakes, citing general unhappiness and a desire to be closer to home. Following his successful 2002 World Cup appearance, Leverkusen recalled Donovan, but he was only there for a couple of months before asking to be released after a horrendous Champions’ League performance against Liverpool. He was seen as coming back to MLS with his tail between his legs. In 2009 Donovan took a third crack at Germany, this time with Bayern Munich, and while scoring five goals in exhibition matches, he failed to earn much playing time in competitive play in the short loan, and was seen as failing yet again.

His performance in the 2006 World Cup finals was also seen as a major failure. After the stellar performance in 2002, Bruce Arena built the 2006 team around Donovan as an attacking midfielder. While Landon lead the team in scoring and assists through qualifying, he made little impact at the world cup finals, and the team was eliminated in the first round. He was particularly criticized for not being aggressive enough, and deferring to less skilled (if older) teammates at key times in matches.

Even in MLS, Donovan has seen some rough patches. In 2009 he lead the LA Galaxy to the MLS Cup final, and had the opportunity to take a penalty kick in the shootout that would have won the championship. He missed badly, allowing the opportunity to slip away, and once again, many questioned his mental toughness.

Donovan’s Honesty
The second thing that makes Donovan an easy target for his critics is that he is both introspective and honest in the way he responds to questions from the press. He tends to wear his heart on his sleeve. I won’t drag up all the quotes, but if you want to read some examples, here are some articles:

In short, Donovan gives his critics a lot of ammunition giving shaded, thoughtful answers to tough questions, and even admitting his weaknesses in public forums. In the macho world of professional sports, that’s seen as soft.

What Makes Donovan Different
In the world of professional sports, all athletes face setbacks and failures. The thing that works against Donovan is that a) his sublime skills lead to abnormally high expectations; and b) he openly talks about his failures. Every time he fails to meet those expectations, someone comments on it. After last Sunday’s championship match, he was criticized in some corners for not doing enough. Scoring the winning goal and leading the team in shots doesn’t do the trick. He needs to do EVRYTHING, or he hasn’t lived up to his capabilities.

The flip side of this is that Donovan is acutely aware of his weaknesses and failures. As a result, he confronts them and constantly tries to address them. After a failure, he doesn’t just say “Haters gonna hate,” and ignore criticism. He weighs it and decides whether or not there is merit to it. Then he comes back and takes another shot at achieving his goals. For example:

  • Failure in Europe? In 2010 he had a loan spell with Everton in the EPL and won the player-of-the month award for his outstanding performances against the top four teams in the league.
  • Failure in the World Cup? In 2010 he looked like a man on a mission, leading the USMNT to win it’s group and scoring the iconic goal at the end of the game against Algeria that allowed it to happen.
  • Missed PK in the 2009 MLS Cup shootout? Donovan scores the game-winning goal in the 2011 MLS Cup and wins the MVP award.

Is Donovan a failure? Does he have soft spots and weaknesses? Absolutely.

The thing that separates him from all the other US soccer players is that, not only does he have a stunning skillset, but he continues to work harder and harder to learn from his mistakes. You knock him down, and he gets back up and comes back at you. He just does it in a methodical and unassuming way which fools people into thinking he’s admitting defeat.

Will he fail in the future? You bet. Anyone who takes on the types of challenges that he does is bound to face setbacks, and he’s not done yet.

So I don’t know about all the other fans of the USMNT and/or the LA Galaxy, but as Donovan heads into the final phase of his illustrious career, I’m going to sit back and enjoy watching him play the game. I’m going to marvel at his remarkable touch, vision, and composure. I’m going to get a kick out of every one of those patented recovery runs that he makes when protecting a one-goal lead. I’ll watch with regret as his speed and quickness begin to fade, and I’ll yell at him on the television when he makes a poor play. However, I won’t let my expectations get in the way of appreciating what he brings to the game, and I will not question his standing as the best field player the United States has ever produced.

After all, if I do that, I’m simply depriving myself of the joy of watching a master at work.

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