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Will Landon Donovan lead US charge in World Cup?

Maturity, recent success may help him boost American team in South Africa.

Landon Donovan
Landon Donovan fights for control of the ball in a Europa League soccer match in Liverpool, northern England February 16, 2010. (Nigel Roddis/Reuters)

BOSTON — To the faithful few who followed American soccer fortunes long before David Beckham blessed us with his presence, the young Landon Donovan went from the American wunderkind to its wuss with remarkable speed.

He was the former back in 1999 when, after being named outstanding player in the U-17 World Cup, he signed a contract to play in the German Bundesliga with Bayer Leverkusen. It was a lofty perch for an American teen, especially one who — unlike the previous generation of top American players with ethnic roots in the game — had learned his soccer in American fashion on the fields of southern California. But Donovan was unable to command playing time in Germany and, less than two years later, returned to play in Major League Soccer (MLS), enthusing about the virtues of the laid-back lifestyle at home.

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Donovan, a rather callow kid, was not the least bit humbled by the failure and didn’t even acknowledge the disappointment of those eager to believe that American soccer had been on the verge of a breakthrough. Over the next decade, Donovan would excel in MLS and also become the all-time leading goals and assists player for the U.S. national team. In 2002, as a precocious 21-year-old, he once again got the world’s attention when he helped spark the upstart Americans into the World Cup quarterfinals.

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Yet as impressive as his international record was — 42 goals in 121 games — the German failure lurked as a kind of a roadblock to the international stature Donovan felt he deserved. He would return to Bayer Leverkusen again briefly in 2005 and would try Bayern Munich in 2009, but would leave both after brief stints — still without ever having scored a goal in the Bundesliga.

But those weren’t even his worst experiences in Germany. That was the 2006 World Cup, where Donovan was considered the key to elevated hopes for the American team spurred by its successful 2002 Cup run. And the cocky Donovan seemed certain he and his running mates would pick up just where they had left off four years before. Instead, the American attack proved non-existent and Donovan was essentially a no-show in a dispiriting team effort that sent the U.S. home without a win.

His explanation — that he just wasn’t there mentally — wasn’t really much of an explanation at all, only evidence that maturity comes later to some. Now he at least seems to have learned more from that failure than he did from the earlier success.

“Expectations are useless,” he said, as he prepared to depart for South Africa, where he will once again assume the role of offensive sparkplug. “I don’t think back any longer. That lesson has been well-learned and won’t be duplicated.”