Goodbye Landycakes, hello Lan the Man
I admit it, there were times in the past decade when I looked at Landon Donovan and saw Ryan Seacrest in cleats. Here was a young U.S. player who had all the technical ability in the world but would wilt if someone sweated on him too hard or would throw a hissy fit if his teammates weren't up to his appreciation of his own excellence.
In other words, he played like a girly-man and defined every cliché about American soccer. Even his pretty-boy Galaxy teammate David Beckham seemed nails-tough by comparison.
At least Beckham had many glorious years for Manchester United and England. Donovan? He couldn't even cut it in Germany. Twice. At best, I thought he was like one of those Brazilian basketball phenoms who could light it up in Rio only to find that he's out of his league when he's playing against the best in the world in the NBA.
Call me a Eurosnob -- and many did -- but I felt that Landycakes was just The Great American Hype. As I once wrote, "Landycakes' future is receding faster than his hairline."
But now I see that I seriously underestimated him. Donovan takes the cake, and I'm all too happy to eat crow. Not only did he score the biggest goal in American soccer history, but he also got the U.S. to that point by carrying the team on what I had thought were soft, narrow shoulders.
It has been a long, steady climb back since Donovan fell on his peach-fuzz-covered face in Germany and slinked home to the comfort zone of MLS in 2005, eager to prove that his disastrous stint abroad was but a speed bump on the way to fame and glory. Only then the pressure had ratcheted up because he was expected to not only rehabilitate his image but also lead the U.S. on another deep run in the 2006 World Cup. As it turned out, Donovan was Messiah-ed out. When the U.S. went three and out, the media looked for scapegoats and found an easy one in Donovan.
He rediscovered his mojo in last year's Confederations Cup in which his pace and guile schooled the best defenders Spain and Brazil had to offer, earning him another crack at top-tier European soccer with Everton in the English Premier League. Fueled by the tough love he got from manager David Moyes, Donovan evinced a warrior mentality that enabled him to play with no fear for perhaps the first time since the 2002 World Cup. He brought that indomitable resolve to South Africa, and I have no doubt that his teammates have been drawing on it when they have found themselves down an early goal or on the receiving end of a hideous call.
And so as the U.S. team heads to the round of 16 to face Africa's last remaining hope, Ghana, it will look not to a brash and petulant boy wonder but to Lan the Man, a world-class player who has proved once and for all to Eurosnobs like me that he can cut the Grey Poupon wherever he plays.
David Hirshey is the co-author (with Roger Bennett) of "The ESPN World Cup Companion: Everything You Need to Know About the Planet's Biggest Sporting Event."