Landon Donovan is the best men’s soccer player that the United States has produced. For many years, though, he was also the most reviled player in the country. The reasons are things American soccer fans still fight over. And wittingly or unwittingly, the next generation of American players is going through the exact same thing.
They called him “Landycakes.” It’s hard to find out who first referred to Donovan by that derisive diminutive, but by the mid-2000s, just about every American soccer fan had heard him referred to by that nickname. It all stemmed from his refusal to stick it out playing in Europe, the pinnacle of global club soccer.
Donovan had been the player of the tournament at the Under-17 World Cup in 1999, leading the United States into the semifinals — still the only time the team has made it to the final four. At the same time, though, he was in the midst of a depressing first year with German club Bayer Leverkeusen. Homesick and unable to speak German, he spent two dark years in Germany before Bayer loaned him back to MLS.
Other than a few short spells in Europe thereafter — one with Bayer, one with Bayern Munich, and two stints with Everton in England — Donovan played the rest of his career in the U.S.
We still argue about Major League Soccer’s place in the sport’s global pecking order, but back then the difference between MLS and the rest of the world was much starker. MLS was just four years old when Donovan first left for Germany. American players who were older than him had no other option but to go overseas. It was either play abroad or play without getting paid.
Other American players had decent careers abroad, but Donovan was the first to have the talent to potentially star there. And he turned it down to play in an inferior league, all so he could be close to home.
American fans, who were desperate for a foothold in the global game as well as the best-developed talent to lead the national team, took this as a slap in the face. The stigma never really went away, though Donovan’s decades of MLS dominance and his performances at the 2010 World Cup combined to quiet most of the open criticism.
For the first time since the pre-Landycakes days, there once again are American soccer players in Europe who have a chance to be stars. Christian Pulisic, starting regularly in the Champions League and Bundesliga for Borussia Dortmund, might already be one. Other players, such as Weston McKennie (Schalke), Tim Weah (Paris Saint-Germain) and Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen) have similar kinds of hype.
Thanks to today’s technology, none of the current crop of American players is stuck with the isolation faced by Donovan in 1999, so the comparisons aren’t perfect. And there are still budding American stars forgoing Europe for the chance to stay near home.
Ultimately, though, this generation of 20-and-unders is taking the opposite tack from Donovan, and trying to succeed where he failed. Raised and developed in America, they’ll try to become European stars. Donovan was the best the U.S. produced. Now it’s Europe’s turn to try to produce an even more successful version of Donovan — one who can succeed both at home and abroad.