Since breaking through in 1999 as a bleached-blond phenomenon who scooped up the Golden Ball at the U-17 World Cup, Landon Donovan has catalyzed soccer in the United States, amassing 144 caps and becoming the all-time leader in both goals scored (49) and assists created (48.)
Yet as the United States muddled through qualifying for World Cup 2014, it has been Donovan's absence -- as opposed to his contribution -- that has been making all the noise. Right now, that noise is static. The Californian has only played in eight of 20 competitive games under Jurgen Klinsmann at a time when the team has appeared short of the very creativity he can supply.
This predicament has been exacerbated by recent interviews in which the L.A. Galaxy star suggested he is in the midst of re-evaluating his future in the game. This announcement acquired a mysterious hue as it was accompanied by Landon's decision to lower his media profile and avoid one-on-one interviews.
After shooting a promo for the Skin Cancer Foundation last week, Donovan agreed to go on the record with ESPN FC. In a wide-ranging conversation, the self-aware player eliminated the mystery surrounding his status by discussing his state of mind in a courageously honest and personal way. Donovan turned 30 in March and, having spent 14 years of his life as a professional soccer player, it turns out that he is in the process of understanding who he is, what is important to him and how that has changed over time. The kind of questions you don’t have to be a soccer fan to appreciate.
His competitive spirit may still burn strong, but Donovan admits his hunger for the game has waxed and waned. "I feel like there is a physical point which you hit when your body can't take it like it used to, but there is also a mental place where your mind can't do it anymore," he explained. "It's different for everyone. A certain number of games will do it for one person. The road trips will wear out another. But if you do it for as long as I have, you realize you hit a barrier and have to work really hard to keep it going."
This isn't a new realization, either. "I've struggled with motivation at many points in my career," he said. "I've had times where it all came easily but there have been stretches where I have questioned it."
One such moment came after the 2006 World Cup. The U.S. had been ranked as high as fourth by FIFA in the run-up to the tournament, only to limp out at the group stage. "When we were knocked out I took the brunt of the criticism, and justifiably so," Donovan said. "But it was hard for me and I was forced to ask myself why I do what I do when I get this negative reaction just for playing one bad tournament. It honestly made me wonder if I want to stay part of it, but I decided to keep going because I was young and believed I could learn from the experience."
The questions have returned this year after a regular season in which he has netted nine goals and notched 14 assists (second-best in MLS), despite having been hobbled by a litany of injuries to his quad, knee and hamstring.
"This year has been challenging because I have played non-stop and gotten physically injured more," he said. "At different times I have pushed through stretches that have not been enjoyable, but right now, I am at a point where I realize that if I am to come back I need to do so with the right mindset."
Donovan's injuries have come at a particularly inopportune time from the U.S. team's perspective. He was last fit enough to play in August, lasting just 45 minutes in a largely anonymous performance during the friendly against Mexico at the Azteca. "I like to think of myself as one of the leaders in the U.S. locker room," he said. "But it has been difficult because I have not been in the team a lot and have had to sit at home and watch the team qualify and, in some cases, struggle, which is frustrating."
Landon's absence was keenly felt ahead of the trip to Antigua. He had flown cross-country to join up with the team at their training camp in Florida, only to leave within 24 hours after discovering a knee injury was worse than he had originally believed. "It was my decision to go to camp in the first place," Donovan revealed. "I thought I would be OK but the trainer there did an MRI and found something more serious and I realized if I couldn't play, I needed to go back and rehab."
A handful of conspiracy theorists raised an eyebrow at Donovan's speedy exit but at this point in his career, he's inured to rumor-mongering. "I have made a conscious effort to stop reading things," he said. "I don't have Twitter anymore. I don't go on Facebook. I don't even read the internet," he revealed. "It has been really nice. Too often athletes are affected by what people say about them. I certainly was. I don't want to live my life like that so I don’t care what people think about me anymore."
When asked if he expects to play at World Cup 2014, Donovan strives to be as transparent as possible. "I don't have the answer to that," he responded. "There are a lot of moving pieces: Will I be playing, period? Will I be part of the team? Will I be good enough to be wanted?" he continued. "If I had to guess I would say it is 50-50. I will have more clarity after I take a break."
Many of Donovan's decision points revolve around the need for balance. "I have always tried to find the point where I know this is a job but where I still enjoy it. I know I have to enjoy it so I can really play my best or else I can become a detriment to my team."
He is also eager to lower the price an elite athlete pays for the singular focus demanded by professional sports. "I talk a lot with my family about my decision, as for the most part, they have had their son or brother gone for a long time," he said. "While most soccer fans think a player's life is easy as we just seem to play soccer all the time, they don't see how many milestones I have missed with my family. My family want me to either play and be happy or else to have their son and brother back."
Donovan is also ready to demonstrate a broader array of talents to the ones he regularly displays on the field of play. "I have some selfish things I would like to do, and more important real things I need to do," he said, placing the urge to embark on a broadcasting career in the "selfish" category. "I have a unique perspective to bring because I have experienced so many ups and downs in my career that I can really understand what players are going through on the field," he explained. However, Donovan's broadcasting ambitions also have an altruistic dimension. "Too many times I watch games and the commentator will get it wrong so the audience is being miseducated," he said. "I want to bring the honest perspective of someone who has been through a lot in this game."
A youth coaching role is also attractive. "I am not sure what age or level I would like to coach, but I'm not just interested in the soccer part of it," he said. "I want to help young men make better decisions about their life and become better men," he explained. "There are ways I have reacted to things on the soccer field that have said a lot about my life off it at the time," he continued. "When I see a kid go crazy with a referee, I want to help him see that there are deeper issues in his life that go beyond the ref and his decision. I have a good eye for that and I know I can help kids become better people using soccer as the vehicle."
Donovan talks about these goals with such passion my surprise is cushioned when he calmly admitted that if he missed the next World Cup, he would not be crushed. "Obviously I would enjoy playing in another World Cup, but it won't kill me if I don't," he confessed. "I never dreamed I would play in one World Cup, never mind three, or score five goals in the tournament, become a leader in the national team, win MLS Cups and play in the Olympics." He paused before making his point further.
"We tend to get greedy and always want more, but the truth is, to play even once for your national team is an amazing achievement," he explained. "I watch the Olympics, see a girl lose a gold by a couple of tenths of a second and be left to feel like a loser in life. A bronze medal for someone expected to win gold is seen as failure, but that is crazy. You should just do your best and let the cards fall where they may."
At a time when Donovan has turned down countless marketing opportunities, he has invested his energies in the Skin Cancer Foundation for good reason. "My dad had skin cancer a few years ago, and while he is now fine, I realize I spent countless hours outside in the sun growing up without knowing I should cover up," he said. "There is a macho culture around men in sports. When we hit the sun, we never put on sunglasses or a hat. Those kind of overly masculine thought processes are killing people. If just one person puts sunscreen on, it is worth it. I feel really passionate about that."
Donovan remains passionate when reflecting on the growth of soccer in the United States. "I may get worn down by it all, but LeBron James and Kobe don't have to promote their sport like we do, and it is exhausting," he said. "But I am able to recognize that when I came into MLS there were 12 teams, two of which quickly contracted, and there were serious talks about the league folding. Now when I walk into these soccer-specific stadiums, it is just unbelievable. Ten years ago we almost folded and now just look at us."
The Premier League and Everton also remain dear to Donovan, referring to the club where he enjoyed two successful short-term loans as "a fling that grew into a full-blown affair."
"I do think about them because they really stole my heart when I walked into Goodison Park," he revealed. "Everyone was so unbelievably welcoming, from Mr. Moyes to the tea lady."
While the allure of Everton presents one option for his future, Donovan still has one year left on his Galaxy contract and intends to use the offseason to review his future. "Right now, I need time to think and that is impossible to achieve while I am playing," he said. The decisions he must make are simple yet weighty. "I need to determine if I want to play, and if the answer is yes, I need to work out where and for how long."
Donovan has given a lot of thought to his decision-making process. "I plan to spend a lot of time with my family and traveling to distant places alone. I am not sure where. I want to take time to have some freedom and not worry about my next game or being fit. It may take me two weeks, two months or a year. I don't plan on worrying about the end result. I want to focus on being present and making the decision when I am ready."
I mention that everyone should be so lucky as to have the opportunity to self-evaluate like that and Donovan chuckles. "They can," he exclaims. "That is the beauty of life."
Roger Bennett is a columnist for ESPN, and with Michael Davies, is one of Grantland's "Men In Blazers." Follow him on Twitter: @rogbennett.