Landon Donovan: The Suburban Golden Boy
As far as icons go in American soccer, Donovan is as close as it comes. Six-time American player of the year, all time leader in goals, almost sure to be all time leader in caps and World Cup appearances (already 8 with at least 2 more to go this summer) and still 4 or 5 good years on his legs at only 28 years of age.
Though then captain Claudio Reyna won the official plaudits for Team USA’s 2002 run to the quarterfinals, Donovan’s display was, by some distance, the greatest of any American at the World Cup, ever. His displays against Portugal and Mexico were nothing shy of world class and had he not been barely beaten in his personal duel with Germany’s Oliver Kahn in the quarterfinal, Donovan would have seen the Americans through to very winnable final four matchup with fellow Cinderellas, South Korea. As it was, 2002 still stands as the finest achievement in U.S. soccer history, 1950 and all.
But it hasn’t all been rainbows and unicorns for Donovan. The golden boy has had two failed stints in Europe and a public bust-up with Golden Balls himself. Ironically, the discord came as a consequence of Beckham’s ambitions to return to the top in Europe. The lack of similar ambition in Donovan has irked many U.S. fans, myself included.
Because of his undoubted talent and stature in the American game, his unwillingness to leave California in the prime of his career is often perceived as short-selling not only his own potential, but the potential of U.S. soccer as a whole.
Far be it for me to indict anyone for pursuing personal happiness by living in California, but Donovan, in so many ways, represents an entire generation of hope for the sport. Not only is he the best player of the current crop, he’s also a symbol of one of the principle demographics of American soccer: the middle class suburbanite.
Hailing from Redlands, California—don’t think sand and surf, think endless swaths of tract housing in the desert hinterlands of the Inland Empire—Donovan had a ‘get in the minivan for a five hour drive to the weekend soccer tournament’ kind of childhood, something I and majority of my friends who are Donovan’s contemporaries can relate to.
We played the same tournaments, stayed at the same sterile hotels, went to movies or cruised the suburban shopping mall between games and generally annoyed the hell out of the poor parents who chaperoned us on these endless weekends. Unlike the poverty stricken barrio upbringing that fostered the likes of Ronaldo or the elite youth academies that gave rise to the Bergkamps and Beckhams of the world, we (middle class suburbanite) are tangibly familiar with the groundings of Landon Donovan. In essence, we are Landon Donovan. We just never had the touch or pace or nerve or work ethic.
His success is the closest approximation of seeing ourselves at those lofty heights, so to see him regularly languish among players that could make more money collecting unemployment is a source of constant frustration. Watching Donovan play in the MLS is like watching your child go to Chico State when he could have gone to Harvard. Again, it’s hard to say that he’s making the wrong choice by choosing happiness, but heavy is the head that wears the crown.
Regardless of where he chooses to play his club soccer, however, he still has the chance to live the other, grander dream of our minivan and orange wedge generation. If the U.S. does make a run deep into the World Cup, Landon Donovan will have everything to do with it… Score one for the soccer mom.
Clint Dempsey: A Profile in Anger
Dempsey is pretty much the antithesis of Landon Donovan—perhaps the greatest anti-hero of U.S. soccer history. A self-stylized “white trash” (his own words) rapper off the pitch, his flash and showmanship on it has long polarized fans. Some (like me) think he’s the greatest thing to happen to American soccer since Capri-Sun; others find his personality arrogant and brash, his game reckless and unpolished.
Both sides of the argument are probably right in some respects. The World Cup warm-up against Turkey typified the Dempsey dichotomy. For an entire half, he looked like a street-baller: a comically heavy first touch seldom offset by an array of flicks and tricks that teammates couldn’t read. But then, as he has so often done for club and country, he came up big when it counted most, scoring the winner after out-battling and out-classing his marker.
That’s Dempsey, aka ‘Deuce,’ in a nutshell. He is the great American enigma—an outsider who built his career on swimming against the stream. Sure, he played for one of the nation’s most prestigious youth clubs (the Dallas Texans, whose members typically hail from affluent suburbs), but his childhood wasn’t a soccer-mom and Hi-C upbringing.
In fact, the self-applied ‘white trash’ title isn’t so far off. Dempsey was raised with his siblings in a trailer park in Nacogdoches, Texas. It was in those parks where he first learned the game by playing with local Mexican children, which goes at least some ways to explaining his affinity for flair.
I honestly don’t know enough about Dempsey to say that the class divide he grew up in is also the source of the everlasting chip on his shoulder, but it seems a plausible theory. Or perhaps it was being snubbed by major D-I college programs (he ended up at Furman, a small private school in South Carolina—basketball fans would call it a “mid-major”); perhaps it was dropping down to 8th in the MLS draft (Dempsey swore vengeance against the 7 teams that bypassed him). Or perhaps he’s just an angry man.
In the last Premier League game of the season at Arsenal, he got into a shouting match with the home fans after being substituted. Consider that the game was completely meaningless, the score was 3-0 at the time and that The Emirates (Arsenal’s home ground) is known popularly as the “Highbury Library.” The biggest conflicts that occur there are usually in the concessions line: the roast or the prawn sandwiches? It doesn’t take much to get “Deuce” started.
Regardless of the source of his anger, it’s an immense part of his appeal. He is the unpolished, unreserved yang to Landon Donovan’s prep-school yin.
His approach to the game is similarly divergent. Whereas Donovan is consistent and reliable, Dempsey is erratic and flawed but sometimes brilliant.
To his credit, those moments of brilliance tend to arrive when nothing short of brilliance is required. Sure, England fans will reduce his equalizer last Saturday to dumb luck (there was an element of that, no doubt) but that Dempsey so often comes up with the goods when his team and fans so desperately need it tells you something about what his fury breeds.
A clutch equalizer against Ghana in the 2006 World Cup, the goal against Egypt that miraculously saw the U.S. advance to the Confederations Cup semifinals, the feisty goal that sealed that historic win against Spain, a clever flick-on that gave the U.S. a lead in the finals vs. Brazil. When the U.S. count on “Deuce,” he provides.
His club are getting used to the fruits of his anger, as well. Fulham, who paid £2.5 million for his services, reaped the benefits of their investment when he and countryman Brian McBride rescued the club from the brink of relegation in the 2007-08 season. At the time he was the most expensive American ever, but his goal against Liverpool that April might have saved Fulham £40 million. This season, he took his his self-proliferating grudge against the world to the European stage where he might have scored the goal of the season. After coming on only 5 minutes earlier, Dempsey had the audacity to chip the Juventus goalkeeper from an unthinkable angle, the difference in what is probably the greatest victory in the club’s history.
Hopefully, for U.S. fans, he can repeat the feat for his country. His goal against England was sweet, but the greatest victory in our country’s history is still out there on the horizon. If we achieve it, Donovan will be pivotal, but I have a feeling “Deuce” will be the man to provide the ultimate moment of brilliance.