Just like David Beckham, Landon Donovan has spent the past two years being loaned out to Europe from the Los Angeles Galaxy. However, while an injury dashed the more famous Englishman's hopes to participate in next month's World Cup, Donovan - the star of the U.S. squad - will be there, better than ever.
Donovan, 28, has been a known quantity since leading the San Jose Earthquakes to Major League Soccer championships in 2001 and 2003 yet has spent most of his career under the radar.
He pops up occasionally - in the World Cup, appearing for Bayern Munich or Everton - only to return inevitably to the MLS. Many of his teammates, whom he can probably outmatch on any given day, have managed to build careers in Europe, but he has not, despite holding the all-time records on the national team for goals (42 ) and caps (122 ).
Perhaps he suffers from being a big fish in a small pond. Bayern sent him back to the Galaxy in 2009 after six forgettable appearances on loan in Bundesliga and German cup play.
The stint in Munich was Donovan's third attempt in a decade to play in Europe. Immediately after leading the U.S. under-17 team to a fourth place finish in the World Championships, Donovan signed in 1999 with Bayer Leverkusen, but he did not play for the men's team for two years. Later he was loaned to the Earthquakes.
In 2005, he received a second chance with Leverkusen. He made only two appearances and eventually left. He recalls that he discovered he simply wasn't ready for Leverkusen or the Bundesliga on several levels - "technically, tactically, mentally and physically."
That's a lot of limitations for someone who had made a big impression at age 20 in the World Cup. As a striker on the 2002 U.S. squad, he scored two goals and helped America to the quarterfinal en route to being named youth player of the tournament.
The 2006 World Cup - his second - was less kind to Donovan, when the team failed to get out of Group E. Donovan says he had been an excited, naive 20-year old the first time around and wasn't prepared to take more responsibility in Germany, emphasizing he won't let that happen in South Africa.
A change in his career has contributed to his current confident demeanor. Never a huge scoring threat early on, he was converted into an attacking midfielder to make the most of his vision of the game. Last summer he stood out in the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup. He scored twice, including once in the final, which the U.S. lost to Brazil 3-2. After losing to the U.S. in the semis, Spanish star Xavi said Donovan didn't make a mistake the entire match.
No longer out of his league
In the latest MLS season, Donovan scored 12 goals and added six assists. This year, Donovan finally made his mark in Europe with Everton. After being loaned in January for 10 weeks, he became a favorite among the fans, who loved his mix of creativity, speed and hard work.
Everton coach David Moyes says Donovan finally realized he was no longer out of his league in Europe. The American racked up two goals and three assists and had a hand in wins against Chelsea and Manchester United, and now says he learned from the experience that he can compete with any player in the world.
Everton wanted to keep him, but the Galaxy wanted him back, and he already has nine assists in 10 games. He says his time with Everton clearly made him a better player.
His national squad coach, Bob Bradley, says he displays a lot of maturity, confidence and motivation. Donovan attributes his growth to both his psychologist and his ex-wife Bianca Kajlich, the star of U.S. television sitcom "Rules of Engagement." He says she taught him more about himself that he knew because she had to fight to get where she did while he was blessed with talent and a lot of opportunities. Consequently, he says, he takes less for granted and tries to remain realistic.
That realism will accompany him to South Africa. "We Americans always want to be champions, but is that realistic in the World Cup?" he says. "Probably not. If we get past the group stage, we'll be thrilled."
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