Landon Donovan is a complicated man who plays a simple game. And that can lead to unexpected consequences.
When others celebrate, he broods. When others smile, he scowls. And when others began preparing for the World Cup last winter, he walked away from soccer, saying he needed a break after playing nonstop for nearly 12 years.
It was an unprecedented move for a player in the prime of his career, one that Donovan, even 10 months later, still can’t define.
“I didn’t have a specific explanation as to why I needed to get away. But I did have a gut feeling that said ‘You need some time,’” he says. “I was very aware that when I left it could have been the end of my career. But at the end of the day it was important for me to do that.”
Which brings us to the most unexpected consequence of all. Since coming back last spring from his three-month sabbatical, Donovan, 31, has been playing the best soccer of his life.
Last week he signed a multiyear contract extension with the Galaxy that could make him the best-paid player in Major League Soccer. And on Friday in Costa Rica, he’ll join a U.S. national team that has a chance to clinch a World Cup berth earlier than any team in U.S. soccer history.
A victory in Costa Rica, where the U.S. has never won, combined with a tie between Mexico and Honduras and a Jamaican win or draw at Panama on Friday, would make the Americans the sixth team to earn a trip to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. And if that scenario doesn’t play out, the U.S., which is riding a record 12-match winning streak, will get another shot at clinching a World Cup spot Tuesday, when it plays host to Mexico in Columbus, Ohio.
So although going AWOL may not be the most conventional way to improve a career, it appears to have worked for Donovan. Just as he said it would.
“The one thing about Landon is he knows what he needs,” says Galaxy President Chris Klein, a former teammate on the Galaxy and the national team. “For all the heat that he took for [the break], he said to me, ‘Listen, if I get this and I come back and I’m focused, I’ll be better than I ever was.’ I think we’re starting to see the beginning of that. He’s in a place, personally, that I’ve never seen him in before.”
And he got there by looking inward. While others studied their opponents, Donovan studied himself through meditation and therapy.
“I play best when I’m happy inside. And that comes from me working on myself,” Donovan says. “When I take care of myself emotionally and physically, I perform better. So success isn’t an accident.
“This is the last great possibility in sports. If we can mentally and emotionally, as athletes, get to a better place, the sky’s the limit. I see so many athletes that I know are not performing at their highest level because they’re not aware of what kind of person they are. And they would perform a lot better if they maybe just saw a therapist or talked to somebody about what’s going on.”
Donovan is the U.S. national team’s career leader in goals and assists and is just two shy of the MLS career scoring record.
But last winter he became aware that despite all his success, soccer had become a burden, not a joy. Passion had drawn him to the sport, then driven him to the top. So when it suddenly abandoned him, he had some soul-searching to do.
“Everybody needs to make decisions for themselves,” Donovan says. “Forget soccer. There’s probably a lot of people in life who sit at home at night and go, ‘Maybe I don’t want to be doing this…. I just need a vacation or I just need some time away.’ And I say then just take it.
“There’s nothing wrong with being selfish. I think we all need to be a little more selfish sometimes in that way.”
So Donovan took a vacation, his first extended break from soccer since he first kicked a ball as a 5-year-old growing up in the Inland Empire. He traveled, spent time with family — especially his twin sister, Tristan, and her newborn son — and mulled the possibility of a future without soccer.
The breakthrough came in February, during an eight-day trip to Cambodia, when he came across a group of kids playing the game for fun, just as he had done when he was their age.
And that’s when he decided he wanted to play for fun again too. Not for money or fame or championships.
“My mind-set now is when I come here every day, I just let all that go,” Donovan says as he leans forward on a conference table at the StubHub Center in Carson, an hour after celebrating his new contract. It’s a deal that, with incentives, will reportedly pay him more than $5 million a season.
“I was holding so much tension thinking about all those things. Physically I could feel it. That mental state was making me tighter during my warmups, during the game. I was playing tight.
“Now I’m just playing free and loosely and that’s when I’m at my best.”
CONCACAF WORLD CUP QUALIFYING TABLE
U.S. at Costa Rica, 7 p.m. PDT, BeIN Sport
Honduras at Mexico, 6:30 p.m. PDT, Unimas
Jamaica at Panama, 7 p.m. PDT