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KEVIN BAXTER / ON SOCCER

Landon Donovan has felt the weight of expectations

Galaxy star said he was worn out after MLS Cup. U.S. national team could use him back, but there could be friction with Juergen Klinsmann.

February 16, 2013|By Kevin Baxter
  • Galaxy star Landon Donovan talks with reporters at a news conference during the MLS Cup playoffs.
Galaxy star Landon Donovan talks with reporters at a news conference during… (Alex Gallardo / Associated…)

Robbie Rogers stepped away from soccer Friday because the physical and emotional toll of performing on the field while living in the closet had become too much to bear.

Landon Donovan stepped away from soccer 21/2 months ago because, he said, the physical and emotional toll of performing at a world-class level every week over the last 12 years had become too much to bear.

Rogers may never return. Donovan, the Galaxy says, will be back — exactly when, the team will announce in the next few days.

On the surface there would seem to be few similarities between the two cases. When Rogers began his break by coming out as gay, he was languishing on a third-tier English team and had gone 15 months without an international cap. When Donovan began his well-publicized sabbatical, he was captain of a two-time MLS champion, the all-time leading scorer in national team history and arguably the best U.S. soccer player of all time.

What Rogers and Donovan may share, however, is the fact both have been weighed down by the expectations of others.

Although Rogers' homosexuality was known to some of his teammates with the MLS' Columbus Crew, no active athlete in a major U.S. pro sport has ever come out publicly as gay. Challenging that — and the misguided narrative that gays are anathema in the testosterone-driven world of male sports — would have been a huge burden for Rogers, who finally decided the pressure of hiding his private life from public view was perpetuating a lie.

"Secrets can cause so much internal damage," Rogers wrote Friday in the blog entry in which he revealed both that he is gay and that he has decided to "step away" from soccer.

"I realized I could only truly enjoy my life once I was honest" he continued. "My secret is out, I am a free man."

The burden Donovan has been carrying is lighter — but quite a bit more complicated.

Just 30, Donovan has been playing at a national and world-class level since he was accepted into U.S. Soccer's Olympic Development program when he was 15. A year later he made his first age-group national team and a year after that he was signed by a club in the German Bundesliga.

While most of the kids he had grown up with in Redlands were heading off to their freshman year of college, Donovan was scoring a goal against Mexico in his first international cap. A year later he won the first of his record-tying five MLS Cup titles while on loan to the San Jose Earthquakes.

Yet more than a decade later he remained weighed down by the responsibility of being both the face of the U.S. national team and the most prominent domestic player in the country's top domestic league. So should it have really come as a surprise when Atlas decided to shrug?

"I've just been worn out," Donovan said in one of his last interviews before disappearing from public view after the Galaxy's victory celebration following their Dec. 1 MLS Cup win. "There's a lot of expectations. A lot of that falls on my shoulders."

There are some signs that the Galaxy has become frustrated with Donovan, who said he needed a hiatus to deal with physical and mental exhaustion but hasn't publicly said when he'll return to training. The team has closed ranks behind him, though, and, outwardly at least, has tried to sound patient and supportive.

As for the national team, which has sputtered without Donovan, time is shorter and the friction more apparent.

Without him the U.S. lost its first game in the final round of World Cup qualifying this month. And even if Donovan returned to training this week, it's unlikely he'd be ready for next month's crucial games with Costa Rica and Mexico

Clouding that future even further is the chasm that appears to be growing between Donovan and national team Coach Juergen Klinsmann, who favors an unforgiving 24/7 dedication to soccer.

"Juergen is very black and white," says a former national team player, who added that Donovan's approach is a bit more gray.

Donovan is also more thoughtful and introspective than many players, says Galaxy President Chris Klein. So for Donovan, playing a game a week, year-round, for 12 years can be more challenging mentally than physically. And Klein, who played 333 matches in a 12-yearMLS career, knows well how challenging the game can be physically.

"Just look at the amount of mileage he's put on his body. It's incredible," Klein says of Donovan.

Others have absorbed a greater workload and remained successful, though. Since 2002, Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo has played in nearly 600 matches, for instance. And in his 21 years with Manchester United and the Welsh national team, Ryan Giggs has actually played more frequently than Donovan.

But the English Premier League plays in the winter in a country smaller in size than Louisiana while Donovan's MLS plays a hot and humid summer schedule that stretches across a continent. Plus, Giggs has never been saddled with the additional burden of trying to sell his sport to a largely apathetic public.

"That is more of a fatiguing issue than the actual games," Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena says of MLS, where teams frequently fly commercial — and in coach. "All those things add up. That's something Landon's had to deal with his whole career."

And it's something he'll have to deal with when he comes back — provided he does come back full time. Like Rogers, Donovan hasn't completely ruled out any option.

"I'm aware what I'm feeling, what I'm going through," Donovan said on the eve of his last game. "If I wake up one day and I say 'You know what? That's enough, I've had enough,' then I'll let the people know who need to know and I'll get on with my life."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

twitter.com/kbaxter11

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