Entering World Cup, Landon Donovan finds himself in a good place for U.S. men

After a soccer career full of ups-and-downs, Donovan is right where he needs to be.
By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 19, 2010

PRINCETON, N.J. -- For about 90 minutes Tuesday on a rain-slicked soccer field, Landon Donovan continued his fitness training as part of the U.S. national team's preparations for the World Cup in South Africa.

For 30 minutes afterward, he stretched his mind.

In a soulful and revealing interview session with dozens of reporters, Donovan touched on topics ranging from personal and team disappointment at the 2006 tournament to divorce from actress Bianca Kajlich. He talked about naivete, guilt and burden, mental improvements and life lessons.

It was as if Princeton's Department of Psychology had scheduled a class at Roberts Stadium for one cold morning.

"I am more real than I was. I am more centered," he said. "In the past, I thought I had it figured out. I'm sure in the future I will learn and look back at this time and say I didn't quite have it figured out yet, but I am in a much better place than I was."

Donovan's introspection provided a glimpse into his mood and outlook heading into this summer's World Cup, his third. A revelation at the 2002 event in South Korea and Japan but a dud four years later in Germany, the U.S. program's career scoring leader possesses the expertise and experience to guide the Americans beyond group play and into the elimination phase.

Group C favorite England awaits in the June 12 opener in Rustenburg, South Africa.

On the heels of an MVP season with the MLS's Los Angeles Galaxy followed by a stint in England's Premier League over the winter, Donovan is in the finest form of a pro career that began in 1999 as an unsure 17-year-old in the German Bundesliga.

He has grown, he said, as a player and person.

"At 20, it was youthful exuberance and naivete and literally just playing every day because you loved to play every day," Donovan said, reflecting on the 2002 World Cup, when the Americans advanced to the quarterfinals for the first time in the modern era.

"Now there is more responsibility and there is greater opportunity. I enjoy the challenge of that now. In 2006, that became burdensome because I wasn't ready for it. And now I am ready for it and I am really excited for it."

Donovan said he has also embraced a greater leadership role under Bob Bradley, who was named the U.S. coach after Bruce Arena's departure nearly four years ago.

"I remember early on, him and I had a discussion and I told him that I wanted to be a leader on this team," Donovan said. "Looking back now, I realize I wasn't ready for that. He probably saw that, too. It takes time to learn those things. For me, I want to earn it, and he has made me earn it."

In recent months, Donovan earned respect worldwide with confident and effective performances for Everton, a short-term stint that helped the Liverpool-based club turn its listing season around.

Under the loan agreement, he had to return to the Galaxy for the start of the MLS season in March, but with his reputation enhanced and a World Cup appearance looming, Donovan might become a multimillion-dollar transfer target for prominent English teams in July.

Although memories of his deficient display at the 2006 World Cup linger, he has forged a new identity with smart decision-making and honed technique.

"I thought back for a while and learned from it a lot," he said. "And now I focus on the present. That lesson has been well-learned and won't be duplicated again."

Donovan credits coaches and family for providing guidance, as well as "therapy and spending a lot of time looking at myself in an honest way. When you combine all that, you don't have much choice but to learn about yourself, whether you like it or not."

U.S. notes: Defenders Jay DeMerit (abdominal strain) and Chad Marshall (hamstring) worked on the side with trainers while goalkeeper Tim Howard (quadriceps) and defender Carlos Bocanegra (abdominal) participated in most of the workout. . . . Italy-based defender Oguchi Onyewu and Sweden-based midfielder Alejandro Bedoya were the last to arrive to the 30-man camp.

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