Landon Donovan is the most accomplished player in the history of American soccer. On the international stage, he’s scored five World Cup goals, as many as legends Zinedine Zidane, Romario, Franz Beckenbauer and Raul.
In 2009, Donovan helped lead the United States to an improbable second-place finish at the 2009 Confederations Cup, and on two separate occasions, in very short winter-loan stints, he was named Everton’s Player of the Month.
In CONCACAF, he is arguably the best player ever, with four Gold Cup championships and three Gold Cup Golden Boot awards.
Domestically, Donovan has won every award possible, including five MLS Cups, and has scored 134 career goals in Major League Soccer—tied for the all-time lead in league history.
For the United States men’s national team, he has won USMNT Player of the Year seven times and leads the U.S. in starts, goals and assists.
So why does Donovan still struggle to attain any sort of international credibility?
He “failed” in Germany
In 1999, when Landon Donovan was only 16 years old, he signed for Bayer Leverkusen. As Donovan himself admits, he struggled with the language barrier and the change in culture in Germany. Wanting to return to the states to assure himself a chance at the 2002 World Cup roster, he came home, going “on loan” to the San Jose Earthquakes of Major League Soccer in 2001.
That loan turned out to be four MLS season’s long, and it wasn’t until 2005 that Donovan returned to Germany. However, once again, Donovan struggled and came back to MLS—this time with the L.A. Galaxy.
In 2008, Donovan once again tried the Bundesliga, this time with German giants Bayern Munich. Unable to displace Luca Toni, Miroslav Klose or Lukas Podolski in the Bayern lineup, his loan was not renewed and he returned home yet again.
His major club accomplishments are all in MLS
Every summer, when the biggest European clubs tour the United States as part of their preseason warm-up games, their managers will compliment the growth of the game in America.
To be sure, a fair amount of these comments are just good business. After all, there’s no need to alienate the same fans you’re hoping to sell $150 tickets to on your tour. But even the harshest critics of MLS would have to admit that the game has not only grown in America, the quality is improving as well. Every winter is filled with MLS players going to train with European clubs, and many Americans who started their careers in MLS have proven themselves in the English Premier League, Serie A and the Eredivisie.
That being said, Donovan’s MLS accomplishments, while extraordinary, mean little to the average fan abroad because they still consider the MLS to be an inferior league.
For all the improvements made in the American game over the past two decades, the United States will continue to lack credibility in the game until it makes a serious run in the World Cup or develops a bona fide superstar in the European game.
For every great moment Landon Donovan has helped produce with the USMNT—from the team’s great World Cup runs in 2002 and 2010 to the win over Spain in 2009—there is still the team’s performance at the 2006 World Cup and the second-half collapse in the 2009 Confederations Cup final.
For every Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Brian McBride who has succeeded in the biggest leagues in Europe, there are dozens of Americans who have failed to make an impact at even mid-sized clubs abroad.
Finally, Donovan plays for an international side that most international fans don’t respect. Until that changes, all American players will struggle for international credibility.
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