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Landon Donovan: Goal oriented

Southern California's gift to soccer, er, football, on life abroad, David Beckham and the World Cup.

April 17, 2010|Patt Morrison

I've read that some people call Landon Donovan the Kobe Bryant of soccer; I wonder if the day will come when people call Bryant the Landon Donovan of basketball?

Arguably the best player that soccer-lukewarm America has ever produced has taken his world-class game from casual kids' matches in the backyards of Redlands, to the massive professional arenas of Europe, and back to Southern California, to the L.A. Galaxy in Carson. Come June, Donovan is expected to anchor the U.S. team in the World Cup.

You've heard of it? Happens every four years? The world comes to a standstill, and Americans tend to change the channel, which is a little like tuning out both the Olympics and the Nobel Prizes.

In the meantime, the thoroughly globalized Donovan proves that although you can take the player out of California, you can't take the California out of . . . well, you know.

Your father played semi-pro ice hockey.

I spent many weekends with my dad watching hockey on TV, and my dad and I talk about this all the time -- about how similar the two sports are, the way you move and the way things happen in hockey.

There wasn't a lot of professional soccer here when you grew up.

There was none. We never had cable TV, we never saw soccer games from around the world; we just loved going outside and playing. That was all I knew about soccer: going outside and playing with my friends.

I wonder why so many soccer teams have singular names -- like the Galaxy, or Manchester United -- but other sports team names here are plural: the Dodgers, the Packers, the Kings.

That's interesting. I think we're more into mascots here. Around the world, a lot of times it's just the city [name] -- Barcelona or Madrid or Milan.

What's the difference between playing here and in Europe?

The media coverage and the fans. We have fans that are as hard core as the fans in Europe; we just don't have the numbers. There might be a thousand Galaxy fans that are hard core; at Everton [in England] this year, there were 30,000. Then the media there put so much pressure on the players; you're under the spotlight. It's a blessing in disguise here. We talk about how we want [U.S. soccer] to be bigger, but the other side is everyone's into your business all the time , so it's not always a nice thing.

As an American player, are you treated differently abroad?

It used to be that way. When I was 17, I went to Germany. They wouldn't come out and say it blatantly, but the way they treated you on the field -- they wouldn't pass you the ball sometimes. It's almost like they didn't trust you. Nowadays, a lot of hard work by a lot of different players has helped to change that perception.

Do you say "football" there?

When I went to England this year, during an interview, I said "soccer" three or four times. I realized how stupid that sounded to these people, who invented the sport and have been saying "football" for over 100 years, and I was saying soccer this and soccer that. So I am cognizant of it when I'm in other parts of the world. When I'm in Latin [America], I'll say futbol. Maybe it doesn't really matter, but it's respectful.

You speak Spanish -- does that help?

I could never have imagined how much it was going to help me. Growing up, it was literally a means of being able to play with a lot of the kids, so I had to learn Spanish.

The U.S. beat Canada at ice hockey during the Vancouver Olympics, and I felt bad. We don't care much about ice hockey, and they love it. How would it feel for Americans to win the World Cup when it's the rest of the world that's so passionate about it?

That's almost the perfect analogy. We don't have it in our blood like they do in other countries. It's certainly going to be a while before we're seriously competing for a World Cup. Only seven or eight teams have ever won -- Brazil five times, a few other teams just once -- so it's not the easiest thing to win. The World Cup is so massive, you'd have to be living under a rock not to pay attention this summer. Every four years we have our big opportunity to gain some fans, and we take that very seriously.

Your little-kid fans must have grown up with soccer.

It's not only little kids. You see kids in their teenage years who've been watching since they were little, and that's where you build the real fan base.

Girls too?

In other parts of the world, to be honest, it's mainly males, but in our country, it's got to be closer to 50-50.

Did you have to perfect your autograph?

It kind of evolved. A lot of people just scribble their first initial, then kids get home and go, "What is this?"

Do you learn anything from fan criticism?

Unless you've played the game as a professional, it's really hard to understand what's going on. I catch myself doing it when I'm watching other sports, to say, "How could you do that?" What we do is judged on sometimes seconds at a time; if you misspell a word, you have time to correct it. We don't have time to do that; it's done, you're judged on it.

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