Landon Donovan: Life and how to live it

When it comes to Landon Donovan, I have to admit a bit of bias — one that goes beyond the typical reporter’s bias of having good interview experiences. Sure, he’s been helpful whenever I’ve talked with him, from a USA TODAY chat in 2000 (he had to delay to drive his sister to school) to a 2009 cover story in which he talked frankly about his relationships with everyone: David Beckham, Bianca Kajlich, even Eric Wynalda. He’s consistently one of the most interesting people in U.S. soccer. (Men’s soccer, especially.)

My bias stems more from being able to relate to decisions he has made that have puzzled other people. He has put family and his own well-being first. I get that. It’s why I’m no longer a full-time employee of a large national newspaper. It’s why I turned down opportunities to do techie-type things in journalism and opted instead to keep putting words together in this thing … what’s it called … oh, right … writing.

Ever since he won the Golden Ball at the U-17 World Cup in 1999, Donovan was supposed to be a big star in Europe. He was supposed to lead the U.S. national team to greener pastures.

To an extent, he’s done both. No one can deny his impact in the 2002 and 2010 World Cups or in plenty of vital qualifiers along the way, and he was a key player in the 2009 Confederations Cup that stands as the most stunning U.S. men’s performance since 1950. The European breakthrough finally came, albeit on a short-term basis at Everton.

But for some people, it has never been enough. Over the years, he always had to defend his choice to play in MLS instead of Europe. If he disappeared in a game, it was a calamity or proof that he was just softer than everyone else.

Frankly, he’s more courageous than most. The U.S. soccer community still heaps immense pressure on every prodigy, perhaps because we’re not used to having them. It’s far healthier to fly under the radar and emerge in MLS, a la Clint Dempsey. But no one has faced the level of scrutiny Donovan has faced, something the women’s soccer community and journalists should remember before making ridiculous “double standard” arguments about Hope Solo.

As Donovan matured and that hairline crept backwards like a U.S. goalkeeper’s, he started to exude more California Zen. He talked about living in the moment and not trying to please everyone. It was a classic example of separating the substantial from the insubstantial in his own life.

And it’s something we all need to do in our lives. The “substantial” in this case is the enjoyment derived from watching soccer. The “insubstantial” is micromanaging someone else’s life to suit our needs. Soccer folks have done the latter on a smaller scale, too — a lot of fans took issue with Jordan Cila going to Duke instead of going pro. Donovan has dealt with it throughout his career.

Criticism of his play is one thing. He’s as harsh on himself as anyone — at least, anyone reasonable. He has had bad games, domestically and internationally. He has gone through bad spells. The psychoanalysis has gone over the top.

After all these years, Donovan still isn’t doing what people would expect or like. He would seem to have an opportunity to transfer to Everton — if they could afford him. Instead, he may follow in the footsteps of Jim Brown, Mia Hamm and other athletes who have left the stage when they clearly have more to offer.

Soccer America‘s Mike Woitalla hopes he doesn’t step away. So do I. So, surely, does Galaxy coach Bruce Arena. So does Jurgen Klinsmann, if he has started to appreciate that CONCACAF World Cup qualifying isn’t the cakewalk he was expecting.

But that decision is Donovan’s alone. If it frustrates you, or if you think you would surely act differently in his shoes, you might need to follow his example and reassess your own priorities.

Headline inspired by some old-school R.E.M., when they shot incomprehensible art-school videos and Michael Stipe had shaggy hair:

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