Understanding Landon Donovan’s European struggles

You’ve captained your national side, played for one of the biggest clubs in the world, scored over 155 goals in your career and retired as arguably the best player your country has ever produced. Yet, some say that you failed. Meet Landon Donavan.

By no means a failure – in reality, an American legend – but Donovan never managed to crack Europe, despite multiple attempts.

After his retirement last year, the Major League Soccer MVP award was renamed the Landon Donovan MVP award. He’s an undoubted legend of American football, winning 157 caps for his country and scoring 57 goals. The forward scored 145 goals in 340 games in the MLS, yet only managed 30 games in seven years in Europe.

Landon Donovan was spotted by German club Bayer Leverkusen whilst playing in a youth tournament, and eventually signed a six-year deal with the North-Rhine based club. Despite a decent return of nine goals in 28 games during the 1999/00 season for Bayer’s second side, Donovan was shipped back to America on a four-year loan to the San Jose Earthquakes.

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“I know conventional wisdom has always been to go to Europe, and I did that early on, and I tried it, but I realised pretty quickly if I wasn’t playing, nothing else mattered – I wasn’t going to be happy.” – Landon Donovan

In truth, Donovan never adjusted to life in Germany and spent the majority of his time training in America. In 2005, he returned to Leverkusen after 32 goals in 87 games in the MLS. It took just seven games for Donovan to decide that he wanted a return to America.

Did he lack the drive to succeed in European football? Maybe, but it’s important to understand the cultural differences and language barrier for Donovan in Europe.

“If you’ve followed my career at all, you will know that I perform best in comfortable surroundings. Though other leagues may seem more enticing to other players, it’s something I’m just not interested in doing personally.” – Landon Donovan

This is key. Donovan wanted to be happy and feel at home, something playing in Europe did not provide him. Of course, Europe has the best leagues and clubs in World football, but it is fuelled by money. The majority of players move for better financial packages.

Landon Donovan returned to America after Bayer Leverkusen granted his wish of a return home. He joined his hometown club, Los Angeles Galaxy, and was a revolution. It’s no surprise that the American flourished whilst playing at his hometown club. He scored 16 goals and 11 assists in his first season as Galaxy won the MLS Cup.

In his 9 years, nobody could come close to Donovan. The captain led the Galaxy to three MLS Championships; scoring 112 goals in 247 games over the nine years.

In 2008, however, Donovan headed back to Europe to play for Bayern Munich, the first of three European loans for Donovan. The German side only had Donovan for a few months until the end of the season and, although he initially impressed with four goals in five friendly matches, they decided not to take up the option to extend his loan.

At the end of the 2009 season, the LA captain returned to Europe with a short-term loan at Everton in preparation for the 2010 World Cup. It was on Merseyside that the American finally got his first competitive goal in Europe, scoring against Sunderland in a 2-0 win for the Toffees. He was an instant hit with the Everton faithful and it seemed that the American had finally found his feet in Europe.

“I miss driving to Goodison Park. I miss just the positive energy of the fans walking into the stadium and how much they care about that club and the team. And I miss the players a lot.” – Landon Donovan

It wasn’t to be, though, as Galaxy refused Everton’s request to keep the American for longer. Instead, he returned to LA and won the MLS Cup; claiming the tournament’s MVP award after scoring the title-winning goal.

He returned once more to Merseyside in 2011 for one final swan song, but had only 7 games back under David Moyes and failed to score, although he did rack up 7 assists.

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It was, however, to be his last spell in Europe. The promising career that ensued did happen, just not in Europe. The LA & US captain won four MLS cups, two supporters’ shields and one U.S Open Cup. Coupled with the 39 personal achievements in his career, Donovan certainly achieved more than most.

Was Donovan a failure for not cracking Europe? Certainly not; he totally rewrote American football, inspiring a whole generation of new football fans. Does it make him less of a player that all of this was achieved in America? Of course not; in fact he should be commended for his dedication to football in his country. Landon Donovan is the greatest American footballer of all time; he just didn’t take Europe.