Landon Donovan: The Most Gifted. By far.

By Paul Gardner

It will not do to elaborate on Landon Donovan. As a soccer player, I mean. Words will simply cloud the simplicity and the beauty of his talent.

A minimum of words, then. Watch the man at play and rejoice. The ease of movement, the purposeful lightness of everything he does, from the springy running to the sensuous caressing of the ball.

No other American player has those qualities. Donovan was, still is, a Natural. A one-off from nowhere. No soccer background. A slight 6-year-old kid who scored seven goals in the first game he ever played. That sounds too good to be true, a Hollywood fiction.

But it also sounds just right. The talent was there right from the start. It had to be. Raw? Hard to apply that word to Donovan. If ever there was a case for a “soccer gene,” then Donovan would be Exhibit No 1.

It all came naturally to Donovan. Easily? I don’t know -- but I suspect yes -- at least compared with the way other kids, the other American kids, fared. Did Donovan ever do anything that looked clumsy or awkward on a soccer field? Doubtful.

Donovan, at age 17, was already a thoughtful boy. Serious about things, yes. Serious -- but not solemn. He lacked the boyish charm, the quick smile, of his teammates on the U-17 national team.

Shyness, maybe. But there was nothing shy about his soccer at that age. It was already bristling with mature movement, skillful touches and confidence, a marvel to enjoy, fun to watch.

There were plenty of goals, loads of assists -- stats (a word I had sworn not to use) to prove his worth. What Donovan did was not only beautiful to see, it was also winning soccer.

Just three months back, his reign as the crown jewel of the U.S. national team was ended by a snub from the supposedly knowledgeable Jurgen Klinsmann. Donovan came out of that disappointment with dignity. You would expect that. Why would a personality on the field who never seemed to be in trouble, who never showed signs of haste or confusion, a player who played soccer with a smooth brilliance never attained by any other American player before or since -- why would a superior player like that react noisily to a coach’s pettiness?

We will get, I should imagine, a Landon Donovan farewell game. He deserves at least that. For now, we have a few more months of Donovan. He is still a sight to see, a rare soccer feast. He is a reminder: That soccer skill can spring up anywhere, that natural talent is a part of it, that missing out on college soccer does not hinder but instead helps a young player’s progress.

Too many words already. So just this: Landon Donovan will be missed. For all those wonderful moments in a sport that -- let’s face it -- can at times be a bit of a bore. But not when Donovan is on the field. He is one of the few players born to show us the mysteries and the hidden beauties of soccer.

35 comments about "Landon Donovan: The Most Gifted. By far. ".
  1. Mario Araujo, August 11, 2014 at 4:44 p.m.

    Best USA player ever. It was a shame Team USA did not have him in Brazil. He was needed. Team USA was lacking in offensive power.

  2. Jogo Bonito, August 11, 2014 at 4:58 p.m.

    I still do not understand why he wasn't on our team in Brazil. JK screwed that one up bad. Watching him play lately has me more convinced that he would have helped greatly. He's just simply a better player than most of our national team players. He has been wonderful to watch play over the years - One of my all-time favorite US players.

  3. j bapper, August 11, 2014 at 5:06 p.m.

    Our greatest US player ever. It's so unfortunate Klinsmann wouldn't put him on the team because he wouldn't drink the Klinsmann kool-aid. Instead we got Zusi running around in circles...

  4. Brian Something, August 11, 2014 at 5:18 p.m.

    I'll leave aside his omission from this World Cup, one which almost certainly cost the US a quarterfinal berth. Landon Donovan was the sort of attacking player the US has never had before, at least as far as I know. He was a difference maker who could make something special on his own (and against top teams) and who didn't float in and out of games very often. Not only the greatest US player ever but, IMO, the most enjoyable to watch.

  5. tommy mcleod, August 11, 2014 at 5:24 p.m.

    What a load of bunk.donovan is an ordinary player and he scored The most goals becaus there was no one else there any good at scoring goals .we dont know how lucky we were to have Jurgen Klinsmann coaching our boys.all over the world he is being applauded for the job he did with our team yet here in America he is being criticized?unbelievable.just shows what our fans know about the for mr Gardner@?well the least said the better i guess. He should be doing tiddleywinks i guess.

  6. Jose Coyt, August 11, 2014 at 5:25 p.m.

    No doubt, the best American player yet. Landon has credited the development of some of his ball skills to growing up playing with Hispanic players in Southern Cal. Which is something JK talked about (the Hispanic influence) but completely forgot about when he was packing for Brazil.

  7. Tom Tani, August 11, 2014 at 5:26 p.m.

    Ric, No statue will ever be erected that matches the size of the one Paul shows in this article for Landon. Don't get me wrong I think he is the greatest US player we have had, and I didn't agree with him being left off the team. But geez Paul, take a cold shower... Maybe your other crush boy crush Jurgen will throw you a towel

  8. cisco martinez, August 11, 2014 at 5:26 p.m.

    Great article! I love the "snub from the supposedly knowledgable," quote. I am amazed how just because it is klinsmann, Maradona, or Beckenbauer or legends of the game that they are immune to making mistakes. Klinsmanns omission of donovan proved to be costly, especially against Belgium where speed on the wings was needed.

  9. John Soares, August 11, 2014 at 5:31 p.m.

    Good article and acclaim for a player that well deserves it. Ric, Tommy, There is an old saying "Better to keep your mouth closed and look stupid, than open it and remove all doubts". You missed that opportunity!:)

  10. Daniel Clifton, August 11, 2014 at 5:59 p.m.

    Good article by PG. He is usually so critical. As for the Klinsmann snub, I at first supported the decision, trusting that Klinsmann knew what he was doing. I have to say after the fact, he should have included Donovan on the team. Donovan would have been a clearcut upgrade over some of the players picked over LD. With the advantage of hindsight, it is hard to believe there wasn't something personal involved in that decision.

  11. Kent James, August 11, 2014 at 6:08 p.m.

    While I generally enjoy reading PG's column because he's always poking a hornet's nest, and since he is such a curmudgeon that I often disagree with his scathing criticisms (even as I appreciate his writing them), it is quite refreshing to see how well he writes when he is praising someone. Donovan is truly a unique player; anyone who can inspire Paul Gardner to write a column filled with praise is truly a special player. He will be missed.

  12. Allan Lindh, August 11, 2014 at 6:14 p.m.

    Good article. If you didn't see it, find that MLS playoff game many years ago between San Jose and Los Angeles, when LD led SJ back from a 4 goal deficit. Best MLS game ever. However, to call LD best US player ever, ignores one thing. In the 2002 WC, is was Claudio Reyna who was named to the players best 11, and led the US to their best WC ever. Reyna lost much of his career to injuries, but he was the best center mid we ever had -- a real futbal player. And don't forget Tab Ramos, he was pretty damn good too. But clearly LD belongs on the very short list with those two.

  13. Chris Sapien , August 11, 2014 at 6:16 p.m.

    Soares, Ouch! Can't argue a whole lot with your take though.....The article wasn't about Jurgen, T.Mcleod. It was about Landon's attributes and successes. If you can't see those qualities, as exhibited against Slovenia in SA '10, when he looks for others first before blasting a "roofer" over the head and through the arms of the keeper from a ridiculous angle to start the comeback, I feel sorry for you. Instead we got Chandler and Davis thanks to Klinn's brain fart.

  14. Alvaro Bettucchi, August 11, 2014 at 7:44 p.m.

    Gardner... my favored soccer journalist, is right on. One of the best attackers ever, for the U.S. of A. But... the way soccer has progressed in this country, there will be other(s)! A unbelievable mistake by J.D. An other item I wish to mention; he represented our country in a dignified manner, and didn't need to have a body like a "peacock" to be noticed. His maturity was shown on and off the field. He will be greatly missed.

  15. John Soares, August 11, 2014 at 7:50 p.m.

    Chris.... Thank you. You made my point. This WAS about Donovan. YES! He deserves it. and yes I could tone it down. Sorry!:)

  16. Zoe Willet, August 11, 2014 at 8:42 p.m.

    Tommy McCloud, it seems that everyone here is against you, but I find merit in your comment. Sure Donovan is a great soccer player, but damn it, he's not God!

  17. Andres Yturralde, August 11, 2014 at 9 p.m.

    Landon Freakin Donovan. When you need him.

  18. BJ Genovese, August 11, 2014 at 9:28 p.m.

    US Soccer is pitiful, on Saturday US Soccer tweeted proudly that 39 of the 42 u14BNT players called to camp in Carson Ca were products of US Soccer development academies. The major soccer clubs in the US like US Club and other need to take action emmediatly to this snub. What, the rest of the youth soccer players in the country have a slim to none chance of being called into TC's, Local and national combines and National camps because of who they are playing soccer with. In many cases... regional status being one of them, kids cannot attend a DA. If US soccer is not willing to call a percentage of kids from non-developmen academies than I believe they should take the hard stance of not ordering uniforms from Nike. Nike is US soccers sponsor. This overwhelming bias and snub of players for possible inclusion and development at Training centers is wrong wrong wrong. Something must be done. What if Donovan could not go to a DA?

  19. David Mont, August 11, 2014 at 10:26 p.m.

    tommy mcleod: I don't know all over which world Klinsmann is being applauded. Everything I've read from "all over the world" has been very critical of Klinsmann and the US team. There is praise for US character and grit, for Timmy Howard, but not for the team's tactics or coaching, especially after the team completely bunkered in in the games against Germany and Belgium with absolutely no offense. Those two games were utter embarrassment for US soccer, and we have no one but Klinsmann to thank. There is a reason why there is absolutely no demand for his services in Europe -- he's not viewed as a serious coach.

  20. Didi P, August 12, 2014 at 12:49 a.m.

    I think Donovan is a very good player, and not much more than that. If he were as great as the author claimed, how come he didn't do anything in Germany (he got two shots at that)? What special thing did he do at EPL? Please don't tell me the short loan spell was an overwhelming success. They couldn't be all coach K's fault, could it? Donovan didn't save LA Galaxy from losing to a semi-pro team at US Open right after coach K dropped him. So let us not exaggerate his quality too much.

  21. Futbol Genio, August 12, 2014 at 10:15 a.m.

    I agree wholeheartedly with Paul regarding Donovan's place in American soccer folklore -- he was one of the best ever!

    Sadly, two things come to mind that affected his soccer life:
    1) He took a lot of whacks on the field, and these caused niggly injuries that affected his fun. Putting his "frame of mind" on TV & newspapers in his last two years pretty much kept him off the last World Cup team. Nobody wanted what sounded like an "old whiner" around the "new blood". He would have helped, for sure, but he only has himself to blame. McBride should have been his model...never carried his knocks on his sleeves. He just played.

    2) We can all cry about what he didn't win, or where he failed, but that is part of the game. I don't blame him just bc the US or any one of his other teams lost a game or tourney. He was there; he gave his all; and, his quiet nature should not be confused with not caring. Remember Algeria...

    Many personality types make up a team. A "Cali boy" personality is part of the US prototype. Donovan represented the quintessential Cali player, and it was a pleasure to watch him. I will miss him...

  22. cisco martinez, August 12, 2014 at 10:28 a.m.

    BJ, Donovan was seen at the ODP camp in Southern California for the U-15 SoCal state team; it is true some players cannot make these team for many reasons, Chris Wondowlowski didn't play ODP or even get into a Division 1 college team, yet he was able to make the 2014 World Cup team. I think the general idea of creating academies is a good thing, however it is still is in its infancy and yes some players will be shunned until we create more academies nationwide.

  23. Brian Threlkeld, August 12, 2014 at 2:10 p.m.

    In the recent history of U.S. men's soccer, Donovan was really our first player who didn't simply manage to score some goals, but was a •goal scorer• — someone whose attacking potential rose above the mere workmanlike. Among U.S. outfield players, he's surely a necessary name among the candidates for best of all time — though I agree that, among his contemporaries, Reyna is also a strong contender. (Ramos was outstanding, but not, I think, quite at their level.)

    But a lot of the discussion in this thread — including the quick conclusions that Donovan is the greatest American outfield player ever — suggests a distorting bias toward the •recent•. We'll simply never know if Donovan is America's greatest soccer player ever, because there's no reliable way of comparing him to the U.S.'s greatest players of the distant past. Indeed, we have only tantalizingly incomplete evidence of just how good the best U.S. players of may decades ago were.

    For one example, John "Clarkie" Souza, a striker or attacking midfielder (who died just two years ago), was a dominating player in the eastern pro and semi-pro leagues in the 1940s and early '50s. The the Brazilian sports newspaper Mundo Esportivo named him to its World Cup All-Star team at the end of the 1950 WC in Brazil; he was the only U.S. player ever selected to a WC All-Star team until Reyna, in 2002. His contemporary, Walter Bahr — another all-time great U.S. player — says Clarkie may have been the most skilled U.S. player of his generation, and was regularly asked by European teams that he played, when they were touring the U.S., to consider signing with them.

    To name just one other old-timer, Archie Stark was a phenomenally productive striker in the Northeastern leagues almost a century ago, from the mid-teens to the mid-'30s, scoring well over 300 goals — and that's counting only those documented in the spotty records from the time. Even in an offensive-minded era, he scored at a stunning rate, and those who saw him play were lavish in their praise.

    How good were these players, and others among their contemporaries? We really can't know — but it's no slight to Donovan or Reyna to say that we shouldn't ignore the likes of Clarkie and Stark when we're discussing who the best U.S. player of all time is.

  24. cisco martinez, August 12, 2014 at 5:48 p.m.

    Brian, I think the only way to compare Donovan to other great American players from the past is to look at his accomplishments. The US national team World Cup appearances in 1930 and 1950, we only recently since 1990 been participants. Since Donovan has been a part of the team, we've been in Quarterfinals in 2002, knocked out 2006, and 2010 lost in the 2nd round. Donovan played on Munich, Leverkusen, and on Everton, and is USA all-time leading scorer, the only conceivable player close to what Donovan has done is Claudio Reyna, whom was conistently starting in Wolfsburg, Glasgow, and Sunderland, and played in the Champions League. I think Donovan's main accomplishment that people blow off is his performance in the U-17 Worlc Cup in New Zealand where we placed 4th and he recieved the best player of the tournament. No other US player has done that, are there players that may be better technically or played in Champions League games than Donovan, of course, Reyna, Ramos, O'Brien, and Beasley, but overall I think history will shine a bright light on his career.

  25. Gus Keri, August 12, 2014 at 8:31 p.m.

    Brian, To add to your comment, Archie Stark held the record for most goals in one season with 70 goals from 1924-1925 season until Messi broke it in 2011-2012 with 73. Of those 70 goals, Stark scored 67 goals in the league where he played in 44 games. It was unbelievable record. **** We will never be able to compare Donovan to past generations' stars of the USMNT; but in this generation, I believe Donovan is the best and Reyna comes second. What set Donovan apart from Reyna is speed and versatility. the reason why Reyna succeeded in Europe and Donovan didn't, wasn't the skill level or the soccer brains. They both have equal skills and brains; but each one has a different personality.

  26. Karl Schreiber, August 12, 2014 at 8:44 p.m.

    I enjoyed watching Donovan play when he was in shape, or committed, or otherwise fired up, which he not always was. To me as a spectator and fan of all of US soccer including our National Teams, the answers to two questions help define great achievements. a.) Since our top playing level for the men was and still is at best second division, has a player consistently achieved very good to excellent ratings in one of the top foreign leagues? – Landon’s TALENT was appreciated by Bayer Leverkusen and he got a phenomenal offer. He failed and went home to second division play. Years later, he was given another chance at Bayern Munich by Klinsmann but that club did not even offer him a job. Everton was just a time-limited loan agreement. Anyhow, Landon did NOT prove his class in a foreign top league. Other US players who to me looked as good on the soccer field as Donovan, did make a living abroad. I’d like to hear their unbiased assessment. – b.) Secondly: GOALKEEPERS are soccer players, too, or not? US goalkeepers consistently had great success in first division leagues in England, Spain, Germany. Our recent top Men’s National Team goalkeepers come to mind: Friedel, Howard, Keller. If (a) is acceptable as a criterion , than Friedel, Howard and Keller have had the “soccer gene”, were gifted, AND have achieved more than Landon Donovan. – Can anyone disagree with this logic? --- It seems to me that many here, including Mr. Gardner, are campaigning for Landon Donovan to get a job at ABC/ESPN or Fox or Nike or whatever, and all of this with the usual Klinsmann-bashing from the usual suspects.

  27. Allan Lindh, August 12, 2014 at 9 p.m.

    Let's hope to God LD doesn't have to live out his life as a pundit. Soccer is a game, not a life. He's a bright young guy, I bet he has something more meaningful scoped out for his next career. He is only 32, he could become a Doctor for God's sake.

  28. cisco martinez, August 13, 2014 at 2:12 p.m.

    Karl, I do not disagree with your point regarding goalkeepers, I personally think that Donovan wanted to play in the US, not because he couldn't make it in Europe, but for balance in his life. Remember Donovan went to Europe at the age of 17, only Reyna did so at a similar age. Donovan played for Leverkusen and may not receieved a chance, Michael Bradley is the perfect example, Roma got a new coach and it was a player personel change.

  29. beautiful game, August 13, 2014 at 9:10 p.m.

    Karl S, I agree with your assessment about LD. G. Rossi, for one, from NJ has proven his metal in Europe. And let's hope that LD does not get a soccer commentator job; I hear plenty of ex-U.S. soccer players behind the mike simply killing the game with small talk about nothing. It takes talent to do sports commentary and preparation.

  30. Bob Soccer, August 13, 2014 at 11:59 p.m.

    Cisco, USSDA idea is still in its infancy and that is exactly why we should not be only or mostly picking our best players from there !! Shouldnt a new system like this prove itself first before giving it all that confidence and POWER?? I think its a little more than a few players being shunned and its not only because they dont have an Academy close by. There are plenty of Top Players who choose not to play for an Academy for very good reasons. Have you seen enough of academy training and play and honestly say that is the best we have to offer ??

  31. Bob Soccer, August 14, 2014 at 12:02 a.m.

    Academy clubs are now holding "inhouse" tryouts sending the message of "If you want to play for our Academy you better join our club young at U10 and pay the $5,000-$10,000 a year to have a shot". Yea, Academy was a great idea!!!

  32. Bruce Moorhead, August 14, 2014 at 3:37 p.m.

    John Soares, Kent James - totally agree. A deserved rousing tribute from Paul. Some will never stop being angry with Donovan for not playing a full season in Europe (and I'm sure there were offers besides Everton), but I believe he had a sincere desire to grow MLS, as well as stay close to his ex-wife (the actress). Surely he is the best U.S. player I've seen the past 30 years, and that includes Reyna and Ramos.

  33. david caetano, August 18, 2014 at 2:23 p.m.

    LD would of been at Platini level if he played with one of the tops teams in Europe and he certainly could have.
    glad LD play and his character is recognized.

  34. Rick Estupinan, September 11, 2014 at 1:16 p.m.

    It is II:30 pm , and playing with the Internet , I found this very interesting radio station in Seattle . a terrific broadcast . I feel I am part of the audience present there right now Right now there is Andre Yedlin been interview by the GASMEN , at the Dragon pub , in Fremont , talking about the Sounders , the MLS , and Football / Soccer in general . Great program !

  35. Rick Estupinan, September 11, 2014 at 1:35 p.m.

    Spindola,with no intention at all,raised his leg,going for the ball.McCarty,of course,as bad a footballer as he is,exaggerated the unfortunate incident, and the dumb referee,without any consultation with himself or the linesman,red carded the DC player,therefore mutilating the visiting team of their most valuable player.This idiotic,intransigent,dictators in the pitch ,are so bad,they are a danger to the development of Football/Soccer in America.

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