IRENE, South Africa - The words came haltingly, then not at all, as Landon Donovan tried to explain how much the goal meant to him.
He’s the greatest player the United States has produced and, at times, its greatest disappointment. He has spent the past four years trying to claw his way back from heartbreaks both personal and professional. And for all the introspection and work he’s done, he and the Americans were on the verge of yet another World Cup flameout.
So he celebrated like a 6-year-old on a sugar rush when he scored the goal Wednesday that will be remembered as one of the biggest in U.S. soccer history. And when it finally all sank in, no way he could – or would – stop the tears.
“In the past, a moment like that wouldn’t have felt the same, it wouldn’t have felt as good,” Donovan said. “When you put yourself on the line, and you risk things that you weren’t willing to risk before and then you’re rewarded for it, it feels incredible.”
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His evolution is fascinating, on the field and off.
He is the rare star athlete who will give not only a glimpse into his deepest emotions, but also a front-row seat. He talks candidly about his struggles on the field and his uncomfortable transition to U.S. soccer’s poster boy, and freely admits therapy has helped him work through personal failings laid bare by his crumbling marriage.
He is, finally, a man at peace. But he also knows he can’t be whole without success on the soccer field.
The Americans play Ghana – the team that knocked them out four years ago —
– today with a chance to make at least the quarterfinals for the third time.
“It’s not a failure if we don’t win Saturday, but there’s such a massive opportunity to do something so much more special,” Donovan said. “And I really want to emphasize that to everybody, and make sure we understand that.”
For as much as the Americans like to talk about team and doing something special together, everyone knows they will only go as far as Donovan leads them.
Playing with the unbridled joy and confidence only a 20-year-old can have, he scored twice at the 2002 World Cup as the Americans made a stunning run to the quarterfinals, and was selected as best young player of the tournament. Burdened by the expectations and the hype four years later, he all but disappeared as the Americans stumbled out of Germany without a victory. Just about everyone deserved a piece of the blame, but Donovan took the majority of criticism.
“That was not a good day, for me or for the team,” Donovan said when asked about the Ghana game in 2006. “What I remember most, personally, was my tentativeness and the immediate feeling afterward of the finality of it and how disappointing that was.”
His two unsuccessful stints in Germany only fueled the negativity. Signed by Bayer Leverkusen at 16, he never got in a game in two years and was shipped to the San Jose Earthquakes of Major League Soccer in 2001. He went back to Leverkusen in January 2005 and made nine appearances but lasted two months before going back to MLS.
Long MLS’ undisputed star, he was forced to give up part of his spotlight when David Beckham joined him at the Los Angeles Galaxy. It was an uneasy partnership, and Donovan ripped the England midfielder’s leadership and effort in “The Beckham Experiment,” the critical book chronicling Beckham’s first two seasons in America. Donovan eventually apologized for airing his thoughts in public, and the two have repaired their relationship.
Put it all together, however, and Donovan seemed like just another spoiled athlete who’d failed to live up to his promise.
“He got criticized quite heavily after the last World Cup, and he’s worked hard and pushed himself to get to this level,” U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra said. “It’s nice for him to get the winner for us. It kind of shows his work has paid off, his mentality has changed.”
Donovan gives much of the credit to his ex-wife, Bianca Kajlich, who graduated from Seattle’s Blanchet High School. Kajlich is an actress (a star of “Rules of Engagement” on CBS), and seeing her have to battle for the smallest roles made him realize he was squandering his talent.
Though Kajlich and Donovan broke up in July, the split was a turning point. The two are still on friendly terms – Donovan blew a kiss into the TV camera for her during his postgame interview Wednesday – but he realized it was time to take a long, hard look at himself.
“Sometimes you learn more from those moments than anything, and for me certainly that was the case,” he said last month. “And it doesn’t have to be ugly. It doesn’t have to be nasty. It can be helpful and you can grow from it, and that’s what we both took out of it.”
The change is noticeable to anyone who has watched Donovan in South Africa.
“I live in the moment now, and that means forgetting about the bad moments, but also forgetting about the good moments so you can continue to be in the moment,” he said.