Donovan soaks up spotlight

IRENE, South Africa – The words came haltingly, then not at all, as Landon Donovan tried to explain how much the goal meant to him.

He’s the greatest player the United States has produced and, at times, its greatest disappointment. He’s spent the last four years trying to claw his way back from heartbreaks both personal and professional. And for all the introspection and work he’s done, he and the Americans were on the verge of yet another World Cup flameout.

So yeah, he celebrated like a 6-year-old on a sugar rush when he scored the goal that will be remembered as one of the biggest in U.S. soccer history. And when it finally all sank in, no way he could – or would – stop the tears.

“In the past, a moment like that wouldn’t have felt the same, it wouldn’t have felt as good,” Donovan said Thursday. “When you put yourself on the line, and you risk things that you weren’t willing to risk before and then you’re rewarded for it, it feels incredible.”

Donovan’s evolution is fascinating, on the field and off.

He is the rare star athlete who will give not only a glimpse into his deepest emotions, but a front-row seat. He talks candidly about his struggles on the field and his uncomfortable transition to U.S. soccer’s poster boy, and freely admits therapy has helped him work through personal failings laid bare by his crumbling marriage.

He is, finally, a man at peace. But he also knows he can’t be whole without success on the soccer field.

On Saturday, the Americans play Ghana – the team that knocked them out four years ago – with a chance to make at least the quarterfinals for only the third time in history.

“It’s not a failure if we don’t win Saturday, but there’s such a massive opportunity to do something so much more special,” Donovan said. “And I really want to emphasize that to everybody, and make sure we understand that.”

For as much as the Americans like to talk about team and doing something special together, everyone knows they will only go as far as Donovan leads them.

Playing with the unbridled joy and confidence only a 20-year-old can have, he scored twice at the 2002 World Cup as the Americans made a run to the quarterfinals, and was selected as best young player of the tournament. Burdened by the expectations and the hype four years later, he all but disappeared as the Americans stumbled out of Germany without a victory. Just about everyone deserved a piece of the blame, but Donovan took the majority of criticism.

“That was not a good day. For me or for the team,” Donovan said when asked about the Ghana game in 2006. “What I remember most personally was my tentativeness and the immediate feeling afterward of the finality of it, and how disappointing that was.”

His two unsuccessful stints in Germany only fueled the negativity. Signed by Bayer Leverkusen at 16, he never got in a game in two years and was shipped to the San Jose Earthquakes of Major League Soccer in 2001. He went back to Leverkusen in January 2005 and made nine appearances, but lasted only two months before running back to MLS.

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