On soccer fields all across the Inland Empire, the name Landon Donovan was legendary long before he achieved star status as a member of the United States Men’s National Team.
A decade before he became an international star at the 2002 World Cup, Donovan was a 10-year-old kid from San Bernardino county. In this region of Southern California, the talents of youth developmental soccer are often overshadowed by the county’s poverty and violence. In nearly every park in San Bernardino, the fields—however patchy their grass may be—play host to young boys and girls who dream of careers in professional soccer.
Though many young kids seek an escape from a destitute life under San Bernardino’s hazed skyline, few are able to realize their ambitions. However, their hopes are given plausibility because the greatest American soccer player of all-time was also a product of the nation’s second poorest county.
Landon Donovan once shared their same dream.
When I was 12 years old, my dad drove me to a city in California called Redlands so that I could try out for a team called Los Gauchos Soccer Club. Though I didn’t know much about the club initially, it took me little time before I started hearing stories about the undersized, youth phenom who had once worn the red, black and white of Los Gauchos.
“I heard that Landon was first scouted playing here.”
“I heard that this club bought Landon’s cleats so that he’d continue to play for the club.”
“I heard that Landon was even smaller than me at this age. I want to be the next Donovan someday.”
From his days in the Inland Empire, Donovan grew from local star to national hero. Despite standing only 5 feet 8 inches tall, Donovan became larger than life during the 2000s.
By 2008, he was the face of American soccer.
On June 23, 2010, Landon Donovan became a national icon.
I get goosebumps at the thought of the 91st minute of Algeria vs. USA in the 2010 World Cup. As Donovan received a pass from Tim Howard and streaked down the right flank, Number 10 carried the hopes of his entire country on his shoulders. The next fifteen seconds served as the pivotal moment in which soccer became relevant in the United States.
To this day, the words of Ian Darke reverberate ever so clearly in my head.
“And Donovan has scored! Can you believe this? Go, Go, USA! You could not write a script like this!”
With his clinical pass into the bottom left corner of the net, Donovan permanently etched his name into American sports history. With the strike, USA won their World Cup group for the first time since 1930 and secured a spot in the tournament’s final 16.
Though the Red, White and Blue were eliminated by the Ghanaians in the Round of 16, Donovan’s goal had an immeasurable impact on the increasing popularity of American soccer. In the 2014-15 MLS season, the average attendance per game is 19,016, a 14% increase from the average attendance at MLS games four years ago.
In addition, even when Donovan was left off of Jurgen Klinsmann’s 23-man roster for the World Cup in Brazil, 24.7 million tuned in to watch the U.S.A.’s Group Stage contest against Portugal. This viewership was even higher than the averages of the 2013 World Series and 2014 NBA Finals.
On October 10, 2014, Donovan suited up for his final game as a member of the USMNT. Though his days of sporting the Red, White and Blue against the world’s best teams may be finished, Donovan has left a lasting impact on American soccer. Over the course of the past 15 years, Donovan has been a more important figure for American soccer than Kobe Bryant has been for American basketball or Peyton Manning has been for American football. Donovan has broken nearly every American soccer record, registering 57 goals and 58 assists for the USMNT and 144 goals and 136 assists in MLS play.
As impressive as his career statistics and accolades may be, Donovan’s impact is felt the most within U.S. soccer’s developmental programs, which have continued to grow in prominence. Most MLS clubs have started academy and youth teams with the hopes of developing domestic talent and giving more kids from across our country the possibilities of fulfilling their aspirations on the soccer pitch. Today more than ever, kids from every corner of our country have the chance to realize their ambitions for a career in professional soccer.
Even after years of playing on the world’s biggest soccer stages and in front of millions of fans, Donovan continues to be a legend in the San Bernardino community. Every so often, he stops by Redlands and signs autographs as he is swarmed by young kids who all call him by his first name. Though he achieved worldwide stardom and played at the highest levels of international and professional soccer, he always stayed true to his roots.
Landon Donovan may not have ever won a Ballon d’Or or a FIFA World Cup, but he will always be remembered and loved by the city and country that he represented whenever he took the pitch. He may not score another goal, but he has already set the foundation upon which American soccer will grow for years to come.
His legacy will continue to live on, and there may never be another legend in American soccer like Landon Donovan.
Photo: Wikipedia Commons