Sticking his tripod straight up in the air, a photographer lifted his camera over the advertising background to snap a few shots. His pictures showed a bird's-eye view of the balding spots on the heads of Landon Donovan and the press throng around him. The print journalists jostled for position – trying to push as close as possible for crisper audio without actually touching Donovan – a writhing tangle of digital recorders and button-down shirts and smudged notepads.
Donovan stared back at the popping camera flashes without blinking. This is the life he chose.
The 30-year-old is, by some considerable margin, the most marketable homegrown player in Major League Soccer. In Los Angeles, a city built on sunshine and celebrity, the Galaxy captain has borne that as a responsibility. And now it's starting to grind him down.
MLS is unique in that it has to sell the sport of soccer to Americans before it can sell itself as a division. Leagues of sports more entrenched in the United States don't have the same stressor. Additionally, that plight applies to soccer leagues in precious few other countries.
So Donovan has fashioned himself as an evangelist, cashing in all the celebrity credit he can muster for the success of MLS.
"Landon not only had to be a great player, but Landon also carried a lot of the promotional burden of growing the sport for a decade or more on his shoulders," MLS commissioner Don Garber said. "He played during the day and then he had to promote it at night. And that's tiring."
It has burned out Donovan. The U.S. international has trimmed down his media availability in recent years. He talks to the press roughly once a week after training and has all but eliminated exclusive interviews except to promote charities, like the Skin Cancer Foundation.
He's less aggressive with his quotes, too, more aware of how they will pan out. No more incendiary jibes at Mexico, like the ones that littered his youth. Even on the field, he's fully transitioned from a somewhat wasteful striker into an efficient winger. He has seven more assists (17) this year than goals (10). Several times Donovan has offhandedly mentioned that he doesn't care much about scoring goals.
He talks and plays like someone who would have been more comfortable as the steady role player on a team rather than the face of a league.
When he does talk, Donovan is deeply funny in ways that don't translate well in print. He's also incredibly smart. Scott French, a journalist who has covered Donovan since his high school days, says Donovan could have become a brain surgeon. Longtime coach Bruce Arena says that Donovan could have gone to Harvard if he felt like it.
But instead, he decided to devote at least the first chunk of his adult life to soccer, specifically soccer in the United States.
For instance, back in December 2009, Donovan signed a new contract with MLS. He didn't have to. He could have waited out his deal, moved to Europe and made more money. A loan to Everton the next month proved to everyone – proved to himself – that he could ball at that level.
Now MLS is finally finding some traction. The 19th team joined the league this season, average attendances can now stand up to other more entrenched sports and there's increased television exposure (though ratings remain pitifully low).
None of that would have happened without Donovan. But similarly none of it would have happened without David Beckham. One journalist from the writhing throng asked how Donovan felt needing an Englishman to bring MLS to the level it's at. Donovan paused and considered. "That's a good question," he said. Then he answered in his usual low, measured voice.
"I don't have any ego about that," he said. "I think, like most of us and most of you all here, we just want to see it grow."
After spending the last decade and a half without regard for ego or the sustainability of his energy levels, Donovan will take a break from playing this offseason. It may last two months, two years or it may last for the rest of his life. He's not sure yet, and he doesn't know when he'll be sure. All that's clear is that Donovan is emotionally exhausted.
Recently, a cluster of journalists crowded around David Beckham in the Galaxy locker room, waiting for him to tie his shoes and straighten a poppy-adorned blazer. One jokingly asked what he thought about being watched as he dressed. Beckham shook his head and smiled ruefully. "It never gets old," he said. It's not outlandish that Donovan, for the next while at least, just wants a bit of privacy when he pulls on his pants.
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