‘CUP’ CHAT: DONOVAN SEEMED PREPARED TO MAKE THE CALL

Redlands Connection is a concoction of sports memories emanating from a city that once numbered less than 20,000 people. From the Super Bowl to the World Series, from the World Cup to golf’s U.S. Open, Wimbledon and the Olympics, plus NCAA Final Four connections, Tour de France cycling, major tennis, NBA and a little NHL, aquatics and quite a bit more, the sparkling little city that sits around halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs on Interstate 10 has its share of sports connections. – Obrey Brown

It’s July 6, 2018. A World Cup quarterfinals day. France had just beaten Uruguay, 2-0. At 11 a.m., Pacific, Belgium took on Brazil for a spot in the Cup semifinals.

American soccer icon Landon Donovan had made a bold prediction a few years earlier. He talked about Belgium in 2014. By 2018, that European nation was bidding for a Cup.

Flashing back, it’s a distant memory in the days when young teenager Landon Donovan flashed up and down high school soccer fields, darting in to take a pass, dribble up the field, set up a teammate, or launch a shot into the mouth of a soccer goal.

In years ahead, he wasn’t worried about playing Rialto Eisenhower, San Gorgonio or Victor Valley from the Citrus Belt League.

What was on his mind that summer of 2014 is Group G – Germany, Ghana and Portugal. Or on just making the Team USA roster. America’s coach at the moment was German legend Jurgen Klinsmann.

Landon Donovan 2
Redlands’ Landon Donovan, who was America’s greatest soccer scoring threat, left America to train in Europe at a young age. Maybe that’s the secret to lifting Team USA to more of an international presence (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

America had been in such a state of disorganization as a soccer side, Team USA went international to hire a coach. Klinsmann, a goal-scoring superstar for the Germans, was brought over to direct the American side.

Donovan would eventually feel the sting.

In reality, his days at Redlands High as a freshman – when he was the ’96 CBL Most Valuable Player – and his half-season at Redlands East Valley, were just soccer matches in miniature.

He was an IMG Academy (Fla.) kid playing for club and national youth teams, plus prepping for a remarkable career that was about to unfold. Leaving REV midway through his sophomore year (1997-98) to play professionally overseas, Donovan’s touch seemed magical.

The magnificent Donovan, an L.A. Galaxy/U.S. World Cup player, has scored an American record 57 international goals – and likely would’ve added to that mark in his fourth Cup appearance in 2014.

“I hope so,” he said at the time.

As of April 22, 2014, Donovan claims he didn’t have a clue if he’d be included on USA’s roster. “We’ll find out in the beginning of June,” he said.

Was he being coy? After all, he’s one of the greatest USA scoring threats ever. Donovan shrugged.

“You never know. I hope so – yes.”

DONOVAN: MESSI, RONALDO BEST IN THE WORLD

It’s amazing that such a remarkable talent as Donovan grew up in the Redlands area. Klinsmann, though, didn’t pick him.

Donovan to USA soccer is what Phil Mickelson is to golf, or LeBron James to basketball – American stars without controversial baggage away from the arena (Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, among others).

Asked to identify the world’s best players, Donovan pondered for just a few moments. No American players came from his lips.

Cristiano_Ronaldo_(35480124482)
Cristiano Ronaldo, called by Landon Donovan, one of the top players in the world, was certainly on the field against USA’s best-ever product (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

“Cristiano (Ronaldo, of Real Madrid) and (Spaniard Lionel) Messi.”

The pondering, perhaps, came just because he was trying to separate the two between No. 1 and No. 2.

It’s impossible. “They’re both good for different reasons,” says Donovan, who may have settled on Messi being best-on-the-planet.

Donovan’s been on the pitch, playing against both players, incidentally.

Messi’s a goal-scoring legend.

Lionel_Messi_Player_of_the_Year_2011
Lionel Messi might get the nod, at least from Redlands’ Landon Donovan, as the world’s greatest soccer player, as of July 2018, that is. Donovan’s played against the great Argentian scoring legend (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

Said Donovan: “He gets himself into position better than other people can. He’s more of an individual talent when he gets the ball alone.” Messi might be five or six inches shorter than NBA great LeBron James, “but it’s the same athleticism.”

The 2014 World Cup was wide open. Donovan was hoping to play. It would be one last hurrah.

Germany, he said, “is emerging. A lot of people are talking about Belgium.”

Belgium? Four years later, Belgium was on the threshold of winning the 2018 World Cup. They’d taken down 5-time Cup champion Brazil, 2-1, in St. Petersburg, Russia. In the semifinals, however, France ended Belgium’s run with a 1-0 outcome.

Team USA wasn’t in the 2018 field.

DONOVAN’S GOAL-SCORING WAS PHENOMENAL

Four years before, in 2014, Donovan’s name wasn’t on Team USA’s roster. It might’ve been the first breakdown of the American side. By 2018, Team USA couldn’t even qualify to be among the 32 World Cup teams. Donovan, by then, was gone.

You have to wonder, though: If Klinsmann hadn’t taken him down in 2014, would Donovan, at age 36, have lasted through a 2018 attempt?

Jurgen Klinsmann
Jurgen Klinsmann, the famed German goal-scoring legend who became Team USA coach, might have slowed up the development of America’s soccer movement after cutting Landon Donovan from America’s team in 2014 (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

The USA/Donovan side shouldn’t be taken for granted, though. An eventual USA World Cup triumph, though perhaps unexpected, would be a great story.

In 2014, he said, just getting out our group “would be good. Getting out of our group would be success. Anything after that is icing on the cake.”

Soccer fascination’s growing in the USA, he says. “Our young kids now are passionate about it.”

Team USA goalkeeper Hope Solo, meanwhile, said there’s too much club, too many parents paying for their kids’ involvement. The inference seemed to be that toughness is limited.

“A rich white kid sport,” she called it.

Donovan: Interest level is high. “It takes time (to grow the same fascination between the USA soccer and the European Premiership).”

That’s part of the answer, perhaps: Grow up USA players on European rosters. To gain the toughness. To gain the experience. To gain the international flavor. It’s just the way Donovan pulled it off.

During qualifying, those USA players would reassemble for their national team. Donovan did it. As a teenager who trained for Bayer Leverkusen, a Bundesliga (league) side, he trained — rarely appeared — before being “loaned” to the Earthquakes for 2001-2004.

There were 11 seasons in Galaxy colors. On loan to Bayern Munich and Bayer Leverkusen, Donovan’s cap time started coming to an end.

Donovan, at 32, retired after the World Cup. Perhaps, but only as a Cup player. “We’ll see,” he said at the time.

By 2016, Donovan retired as a Galaxy striker.

Playing for six Major League Soccer Cup championship teams (four in L.A., two in San Jose), the Redlands kid was a goal-scoring dynamo — 160 in MLS matches, plus those 57 international net-finders.

Briefly, he returned to play for Leon, a Mexican team, but Donovan’s contract was terminated in June 2018.

As a U.S. player, he played in more international matches than all but one.

It’s kind of cool, isn’t it, that Donovan sprung his worldwide legend from Redlands?

 

 

 

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