That simple statement vindicates Donovan’s choice to stay home and play his soccer in America.
The admittedly “simple” restaurateur grew up on a farm in southern Brazil, does not watch American soccer, but knows who Donovan is. The 2011 MLS Cup MVP is a recognizable figure worldwide mainly because of his play in three World Cups. He is the all-time leading scorer for the US men’s national team and the leading contender for the title of “best-ever American soccer player.”
The 29-year-old has reached this point while playing virtually his entire career in Major League Soccer. He was heavily criticized over the years for his desire to make a name for himself in America. Many claimed he would never reach his peak as a player if he did not test himself against top-flight European competition.
Donovan burst onto the scene when he was named best player at the 1999 FIFA U-17 World Championship. He joined Germany’s Bayer Leverkusen that year as a 17-year-old, but returned stateside after two mostly homesick years.
The brash teenager became a force in MLS from 2001-04, leading the San Jose Earthquakes to a pair of championships. He also established himself on the senior national team. He first won a spot on USA’s 2002 World Cup team and then became a villain in Mexican folklore by scoring a goal that sealed their elimination from the tournament.
Following the 2004 season, many thought the then 22-year-old was ready to return to Europe, but Donovan had other ideas. The So-Cal boy engineered a move to the Galaxy to be closer to his wife and family. He would dedicate his best years to his career to his hometown club and be “happier” for it. He believed being happy in his personal life would help him get the most out of his career.
L.A. Galaxy boss Bruce Arena was the head coach of the US national team at the time. He supported the move, but challenged Donovan to consistently perform at his peak and assume a greater leadership role. Donovan responded and won his first MLS Cup with the Galaxy in 2005. He also become the face of MLS and its highest-paid player.
The years spanning 2006-09 were some of the most difficult of Donovan’s career. He took a lot of the blame when the USA crashed out of the 2006 World Cup. David Beckham’s 2007 move to the Galaxy created a lot of turmoil at the club and for the maturing player. He was stripped of the captaincy and clashed with his famous teammate.
Despite these challenges, Donovan elevated his game to the point where he is a perennial MVP candidate. L.A.’s fortunes turned around when Arena became head coach in 2008 and it was a missed penalty-kick away (by Donovan) from winning the 2009 MLS Cup.
He would earn the respect of the English sporting public with a successful loan spell at Everton in early 2010. Back home, the Galaxy won the Supporters Shield (awarded to the team with the most points in the regular season record) that year, but was eliminated in the playoffs. Donovan would earn best 11 honors for the third consecutive season.
Donovan also became household name in America with a last-minute goal against Algeria that put the USA through to the knockout rounds of the 2010 World Cup.
On Sunday he completed some unfinished business by scoring the goal that ended the Galaxy’s six-year MLS Cup drought. The mature and vesataile forward has battled a quad injury since the summer, but fought through it (as did Beckham) to reach his ultimate goal.
“To be honest, the actual goal doesn’t mean a whole lot to me,” he said about his game-winner. “I, for the last month, have been like the rest of these guys: so determined to win. I didn’t care who scored or if it was an own goal; I didn’t care how the ball went in, I just wanted it to go in, and I mean that whole-heartedly. … The goals come and go, but the moment when the whistle blew is what I’ll remember.”
With a well-taken goal on Sunday, Donovan became a four-time champion. Soccer analysts praise him for being a winner, a leader and helping grow the game in America. The rest of the world knows him for one thing: being “a very good soccer player.”
Donovan is rich, famous and wildly successful. That he did it playing in his own backyard sets him apart from almost every American soccer player that came before him.