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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.

At age 28, his face and his outlook are a bit weathered by more than a decade in the spotlight, even the dimmer one of American soccer. Though less brash, more considered now, he actually has more reason to feel confident — beyond his continued success with MLS’ L.A. Galaxy — about his ability to compete at the elite level. He owes much of that to England, which, ironically, will be the first testing ground for Donovan and the Americans in the World Cup.

Not too long ago England, if aware of Donovan at all, knew him only as the benighted, American pop-off who had the nerve to trash David Beckham after their first season as teammates with the Galaxy. (Both players subsequently indicated that they have reconciled.) But this past winter, Donovan was loaned to the English Premier League’s Everton where he helped spark a revival at Liverpool’s lesser side.

English fans were surprised — Everton fans were delighted — to watch what American fans have come to relish in Donovan’s game: his swift glide down the flank; his fearlessness in racing at defenders; his deft touch in seeking out teammates; and his pinpoint accuracy with free kicks. One Everton fan told the New York Times that he had expected Donovan to be strictly a fringe player, but was devastated when the Yank had to return to MLS before season’s end. “I can’t picture him out of the team,” he lamented. “He’s made his mark.”

Having excised those European demons that diminished him in so many eyes and — though he would never admit it — likely his own, Donovan now hopes to make his mark on the world stage in a more indelible fashion than with his first, successful World Cup romp.

“At 20, it was youthful exuberance and naivete and literally playing every day because you loved it,” he said after a recent workout with the American squad. “Now there’s more responsibility and, in my opinion, more opportunity.”

Donovan has, in the past, struggled to grasp exactly what that responsibility is and to embrace it fully. He had once hoped, by dint of his historic achievements in American soccer, to go to South Africa 2010 as team captain. But coach Bob Bradley diplomatically rebuffed his overture. Donovan insists that he respects the coach’s judgment. “I wasn’t ready and he saw that.” Donovan says, without any evidence of rancor. “With Bob you earn everything you get.”

But Donovan believes he is ready now, recognizing that there are many ways to lead beyond the captain’s armband. And it ultimately will be his responsibility, as it was in failure four years ago, to forge the U.S attack. American fans who might have been concerned about deja vu after Donovan was virtually invisible through the first half of the recent Cup warm-up against Turkey, had reason to celebrate after he set up two stellar, second-half goals to rally the team to a 2-1 victory.

But Donovan now hews to the script and scrupulously avoids pronouncements about what fans can expect from him or from the team in South Africa. Still, there is every reason to believe that this time around Donovan will show up — and show off his skills to boot. And as goes Donovan, so goes the American team.

Name: Landon Donovan
Country: USA
Age: 28
Club Team: LA Galaxy
World Cups: 2
World Cup Goals: 2
Club appearances 2009-10: 10 (Everton); 9 (LA Galaxy)
Club goals 2009-10: 2 (Everton); 1 (LA Galaxy)

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