STANFORD (AP) — His hairline has receded during 15 years in the spotlight, seeming to retreat at the same pace as his record-breaking scoring total advanced.
Landon Donovan first became widely known in 1999, when he was voted the golden ball as the best player of the FIFA Under-17 World Championship — an award later won by Cesc Fabregas, Anderson and Toni Kroos. In a soccer world where Americans were long looked at as non-entities, Donovan’s success was startling.
He was 18 when he scored against Mexico in his U.S. national team debut and has 57 goals overall, 21 more than Clint Dempsey’s second-place total.
Now 32, Donovan’s spot in the starting lineup is no longer assured, perhaps not even his place on the 23-man roster. If Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley make it to Brazil next month, they could become the first Americans to play in four World Cups.
“This is my last chance at this,” Donovan said Monday. “For me personally, I sort of liken it to 2002. In ‘06 and in 2010, I knew for the most part unless I was awful that I was going to make the team. This time is more similar to ‘02 where I wasn’t sure. And so in that way, yes, it’s as competitive as it’s been for me personally in a long time.”
He is for many the face of American soccer, the player who spent most of his career at home instead of finding fame in Europe.
Stints at Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich were unsuccessful, but he starred with the San Jose Earthquakes from 2001-04 and the Los Angeles Galaxy since 2005, winning five Major League Soccer titles and tying Jeff Cunningham for the regular-season goals record at 134.
But he’s better known for his play with the national team, where his 156 appearances are eight shy of tying Cobi Jones’ mark. Donovan has an American-record five World Cup goals, against Poland and Mexico in 2002, and versus Slovenia, Algeria and Ghana four years ago.
His stoppage-time goal against Les Fennecs at Pretoria’s Loftus Versfeld was one of the iconic moments in American soccer, alongside Paul Caligiuri’s 1989 long-range strike at Trinidad and Tobago that put the U.S. in its first World Cup in 40 years and Eric Wynalda’s free kick against Switzerland in the 1994 World Cup.
Just 5-foot-8, Donovan has created the tallest presence on the U.S. team. While some question his form — scoreless in seven games for the Galaxy this season — his national teammates are counting on his presence.
“For me, it’s a very easy equation. If Landon’s on the field, he’s our top one or two players,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “For me, he’s easily one of our best players, and he strikes fear in opponents.”
Donovan has always tended to introspection. When he was engaged to the actress Bianca Kajlich, he wore a chain of the glorious endless knot.
“It’s Sanskrit. I’m kind of Buddhist,” he said.
They married in December 2006 and he filed for divorce four years later. Even though they had separated, he blew a kiss into a television camera for her after scoring against Algeria.
Donovan puzzled a segment of the U.S. soccer community when he took a sabbatical of about four months after the 2012 season, spending part of the time in Cambodia. U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said Donovan would have to earn back a spot on the national team and said playing in MLS was not the same as competing for a European club.
“Landon has maybe a bad game here, he won’t be bothered the next day going to the Whole Foods market to get his groceries,” Klinsmann said. “You have a bad day in London or in Milano, you might not go to the market the next day.”
He restored Donovan to the roster for last summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup and kept him on for World Cup qualifiers later in the year. But Klinsmann kept him out of the starting lineup for last month’s exhibition against Mexico, saying Donovan practiced poorly because of a knee problem.
Donovan says his knee is OK, but his voice was heavy because of a cold. He doesn’t assume a roster spot, but he’s upbeat about his chances.
“I’m very confident in my abilities and I think I’m deserving to be a part of the squad, but I have to prove that and I have to earn it,” he said.
Donovan doesn’t have the pace he once did, but he’s still among the faster Americans. His game has changed, and Klinsmann views him more a forward than a midfielder.
“I don’t have that youthful energy and excitement that I did in 2002, but I see the game and I see the situation a lot more clearly now, so I’m able to I think enjoy it more in that way,” Donovan said. “When you’re younger, you’re just sort of going crazy to do whatever it takes to make the team and you forget to enjoy it, And now I’m actually getting to enjoy it.”