#LegenD: The moment Landon Donovan became a leader at the 2010 World Cup

In association with Copper Pot Pictures, Major League Soccer will release a six-part mini-documentary series this week entitled, Landon Donovan: LegenD. Each episode highlights a theme from Landon Donovan’s unparalleled career, with one premiering each day ahead of his final regular season home game (LA Galaxy vs. Seattle Sounders FC, Sunday, Oct. 19 at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN2 & TSN2).


Think back to how you felt at halftime of the United States’ second game of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. If you’re being completely honest, you had given up on the team, hadn’t you?

In their opener, the Americans had scraped out a not-altogether-convincing 1-1 draw against Group C favorites England, and now they were playing lightly regarded Slovenia—and they were blowing it.

For the second game in a row, they surrendered an early goal (a 13th-minute strike from Valter Birsa, following Steven Gerrard’s fourth-minute goal for England in the opener), and when they gave up a second right before halftime, well, they looked lost, and their cause looked hopeless.

I vividly remember a halftime text from a friend watching elsewhere: They’re just not a good soccer team. Great country; crappy team.

I couldn’t muster the spirit to disagree with him, and most of the people watching with me felt the same. The US were down 2-0 and edging closer to what would’ve been their second straight three-and-out performance at a World Cup. There weren’t even any murmurings of Hey, maybe if we pull one back right after the break….

As for the players, you wouldn’t say they had given up, but they definitely needed a lift. They needed a leader.

Landon Donovan had provided leadership before in his career, to be sure: he had scored the clinching goal in the US national team’s greatest win of all time, nodding home the second in the 2-0 win over Mexico that sent the Americans to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup. The following year, he led the San Jose Earthquakes to the MLS crown, winning the MLS Cup MVP award. In 2004, he scored 14 goals for the national team. He added 15 more in 2005—and seven of his goals in that two-year span came in World Cup qualifying matches.

He had also famously questioned David Beckham’s commitment to the struggling LA Galaxy in 2009, helping to engineer a turnaround at the club, which would go on to appear in three of the next four MLS Cup finals, winning two.

There were stumbles, too, of course. At the 2006 World Cup, with the US trailing Ghana 2-1 and facing elimination in their final group-stage game, Donovan literally passed the buck—slipping the ball to Ben Olsen instead of taking a shot on goal himself with space in the box. He finished that tournament goalless as the US exited after three games. In 2008, at the behest of current US coach Jurgen Klinsmann, he famously sought a move to Bayern Munich—only to return without an offer, summoning the ghosts of his failed teenage stints at Bayer Leverkusen.

But like many a successful person, Donovan used his failures as both learning experiences and fuel: He returned to European soccer in a loan stint with Everton during the winter of 2009-10, and proved he could excel at that level, winning the Toffees’ Player of the Month award in January 2010 (a feat he would repeat two years later). He tempered his frustrations from the failed early years of the Beckham experiment in LA, and cultivated a proper professional—and winning—relationship with his world-famous teammate.

By the time South Africa 2010 rolled around, Donovan was ready to fill the role of seasoned leader for the U.S. And when the second half of US-Slovenia kicked off, he took the team by the scruff of the neck and pulled them back into the game, back into the tournament.

Three minutes into the second period, Steve Cherundolo looped a ball behind the Slovenia backline and Donovan chased it down in the right channel. Charging at the near post, he looked up to see if any teammates were available in front of goal.

In a split second he made his decision: rather than wait for runners in the box and risk losing the chance, he would—tight angle be damned—blast the ball into the roof of the net before Slovenia’s keeper Samir Handanovic could do anything about it. And that’s exactly what he did. The audacity of the choice and the execution provided a flashpoint in the game. The goal made it 2-1, obviously, and the manner of the goal said, Let’s f****** go boys!

It was a landmark, take-charge moment for Donovan. Of course the US would go on to tie that game and then face Algeria in the following game, when Donovan’s next moment of leadership would become an iconic one.