Through Gritted Teeth #38: Landon Donovan

by Zac Lee Rigg

Like any good Euro-snob, I hated Landon Donovan.

He represented everything wrong with American soccer: too soft to make it in Europe; finishing bad enough to fill a YouTube clip with laughable misses; bald; and the use of that word: soccer.

Also: I’m an expatriate. I make good use of my American freedoms by taking my treasured American passport and going places where I don’t have to be around insufferable Americans. I’ve been living in Asia off and on since I was 15 months old. It is my assertion that if everyone spent two years in a foreign country, wars would decrease by 50 per cent.

So the idea that sissy little Landon couldn’t bear to part from his beloved dogs for a few months while Leverkusen filled his bank account with swimming pools of Deutsche Marks made me very angry indeed. The last time I moved out of the state (still in the US, mind), my mother sold my dog without telling me and I never saw him again. You don’t see me crying manly tears or whinging to reporters about it, though.

A few years back, while living briefly in California, I took a gig covering the LA Galaxy and bumped into Donovan fairly frequently, him being employed there and all. He’s short in person, the little punk. I could probably take him in a fight.

(By this time in my life I was balding myself, so the dignity with which he carries his receding hairline was begrudgingly respectable.)

The first memory I have of him was after a particularly impressive showing early in the season. He’d scored a couple and assisted another one, if memory serves correctly. Either way, it was a dominant performance from the twerp. Yahoo! had just released an MLS best XI list sans Donovan, so Donovan turned to the Yahoo! correspondent and said something snide along the lines of, “Am I one of the best 11 players in the league now?” What revolting haughtiness for one who has failed at life, I thought.

Here’s something no one mentions about Landon Donovan: he gives post-match interviews with glazed eyes and a sedated drawl. I could have sworn he was on something, probably rolling joints of medical marijuana. It feels like he doesn’t care, especially when his slippers-and-athletic-shorts press conferences came directly before the silky suits and sparkling smiles of David Beckham’s.

Somewhere in early 2009, things started to shift. Both Bob Bradley and Bruce Arena, his coaches, seemed to stumble upon the obvious at the same time. Within a few days, Donovan transformed from striker-who-couldn’t-finish to midfield maestro. From his spot on the wing, he led devastating counterattacks with superior stamina and some impressive pace (if we got in a fight, I’d never be able to catch him). All of the sudden, he was putting away his few chances (the hard ones had never been the problem, it was those easy ones lingering in front of the net he liked to sky), and he was serving up more chances per game than anyone in MLS.

I started interviewing him before games or after practice sometimes. He was bright, mischievously playful, insightful, and energetic. It dawned on me: He’s not smoking dope, he’s just really fucking tired after games. That’s acceptable from a footballer, maybe even commendable, if you’re into that sort of thing, I guess.

And somewhere in that year he learned my name. Just like he knew the Yahoo! guy’s name and was in touch with coverage enough to joke in his acerbic way about it.

I watched every single game Donovan played that year for both the Galaxy and the United States, and I’ve never seen a more dominant body of work in one season from anyone on the left side of the Atlantic. He won his first MLS MVP award in a decision so blatant even Koman Coulibaly could have seen it.

During the offseason, Donovan jaunted off to Everton and taught the EPL how to play as a two-way winger, winning over any remaining Euro-snob who doubted him. That little three-month sojourn was just excess for me, though. I’d already held my hands up, unclenched my teeth, and been fully won over.

Zac writes about the soccer for and FourFourTwo and music for Mock his widow’s peak by directing your Twitter abuse to @zacrigg.

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