Not a boy, not yet a man

Landon Donovan - Allsport

From US Soccer
11 March 2002 -- This month, we turn the white-hot spotlight on U.S. men's national team forward Landon Donovan, who has seemingly done it all in his young soccer career, from winning the MVP trophy at his first world championship, to making it to the medal round in his first Olympic Games, to winning a championship in his first full season as a pro, to having his very own bobble-head doll. All of this by the age of 20.

"Not a Boy, Not Yet a Man"
(Apologies to the Semi-Talented Ms. Spears)

Sure it's a bit of a stretch and more than a little bit ridiculous to compare 20-year-old U.S. forward Landon Donovan to 20-year-old pop super-girl-next-door-dressed-like-a-tramp Britney Spears, but take a minute to indulge me.

Just as Britney is the still-reigning "Queen of Teen" pop trying to branch out to movies and more mature material like her idol, Madonna, Landon is the still-reigning Fresh Prince of up-and-coming U.S. teen soccer stars trying to get a lock on a starting spot with the full U.S. men's national team and become one of the all-time great scorers like his idol, Maradona. In a nutshell, both are looking to find success at that next level. And so far, it's going well.

Both have had a lot of success early in their careers. Both have tremendous popularity within their own world. Both have appeared in teen magazines. Both are continuously hyped by one of the largest, world-dominating corporations in the world. For Britney, it's been a string of eye-popping Pepsi ads. For Landon, it's been a series of print ads and a coveted spot in the fluid new 90-second Nike commercial, "Move."

Both have been the subject of Internet rumors. For Britney, the question about her physical assets has been "Are they real?" For Landon, the question about his finishing skills has been "Is he for real?"

Obviously, a significant degree of popularity has to be taken into account. Britney had her very own HBO special and has a new movie in theaters. Landon, on the other hand, just signed a deal to have his personality used for EA Sports' wildly popular FIFA 2002 World Cup game (a bit premature for an athlete that has basically only played one full professional season, but what the hey...)

Unfortunately for Landon's sake, his much-talked-about potential has led to an ungodly amount of hype (finger pointed firmly at the U.S. Soccer Communications Department just as much as it is at Nike and MLS). With that hype has come an unfair amount of attention, teasing, and pressure for a kid (yes, he's still very much a kid) who just shed the teenager label when he hit the big 2-0 last Monday (March 4). So how does he handle it all?

"It's a bit amusing. Obviously, it feels good to hear," said Donovan, a native of Redlands, Calif. "However, part of being a pro is taking all you hear about yourself with a grain of salt, and not letting it affect you in a positive or negative way. Its something that you can let affect you."

To his credit, the player that's been dubbed ridiculous things like "the first great American goal-scorer" and "the American Michael Owen" has held his own at the full U.S. level after being one of, and in most cases THE, brightest standout on the Under-17, Under-20 and Under-23 youth national teams for which he's competed.

Teams, coaches and fellow players have always known Landon is a special player. Everyone knows he was a super-stud as a U-17 and won the Golden Ball as the Most Valuable Player at the 1999 FIFA Youth World (U-17) Championship in New Zealand. And he definitely turned some heads with his performance with the U-23s at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

But now with the full national team, fans are finally starting to find out what the buzz was all about. From his debut, in which he scored the game-winning goal in his home state of California in a 2-0 win over Mexico in October 2000, to being a huge part of helping the San Jose Earthquakes go from worst-to-first and win the 2001 MLS Cup in his rookie season, to his superb two- goal effort in the 4-0 win over Honduras on March 2, Donovan has led a charmed life since coming back from Germany to strut his stuff in, and especially for, the United States.

"You can't argue with the fact that he's as talented as any player we've had at this age probably in the history of soccer in this country," said U.S. head coach Bruce Arena, who's not exactly known for doling out those kind of compliments, especially on young players.

Even with the post he hit on a clean breakaway in the match in Italy, Donovan is proving more and more every day and every game that, despite his youth and occasional inconsistency and smaller frame, he does belong on the field against the world's best teams when the opening whistle sounds. Whether he's in an attacking midfielder/playmaker role or paired up top with a bigger forward like Brian McBride, he seems to make an impact wherever and whenever he plays.

"His versatility is key to this team," said Arena, whose record is 4-0-0 when Donovan scores.

Let's face it, if Donovan stays healthy, he's got an excellent shot at the 02 U.S. World Cup squad, but that's not the real question. The real question is: does he start or is he the team's "super sub" off the bench?

"I'd like to make my mark in this World Cup, but then again, every time I step on the field I want to make my mark," said Donovan, whose could easily be seen as cocky if he weren't so grounded when you meet him in person. "If it doesn't happen this time around, I'm not worried about it. I know that I'll get my chance to shine."

Either way, no matter how well or how much he plays in Korea/Japan, what lies ahead for this unique player is almost scary. But what's even more scary was his answer to a question wondering where he sees himself in 10 years.

"I don't think I'll be playing soccer professionally in 10 years. Hopefully, I'm retired and doing whatever I want. I'd like to be starting a family if I don't already have one and enjoying other aspects of life," said Donovan, again exhibiting foresight beyond his years.

With a smile befitting a boy, but with a modesty and maturity befitting a man -- that's the so-called "Golden Boy" of U.S. Soccer at age 20.

[Big Grin]