Just 20 years old when he arrived in the Far East with the United States, Landon Donovan helped spark a profound upswing in both form and fortunes for the previously unheralded Stars and Stripes.
Although Donovan only made his senior international debut in 2000, 'soccer' aficionados in the States knew all about this young attacking midfielder well before the first FIFA World Cup™ in Asia got under way. Slight of frame yet blessed with pace, skill and vision, the California-born midfielder had caught the eye at the FIFA U-17 World Championship in 1999, earning the Golden Ball for best player.
Alongside DaMarcus Beasley, Donovan inspired the United States to fourth place at those finals in New Zealand and that same year, the precocious 17-year-old became the youngest player to receive a senior call-up ahead of a summer friendly with Argentina. Donovan then went on to represent the US U-20s, helping them reach the last 16 at the FIFA World Youth Championship in Argentina in 2001.
Locked into a long-term contract from 1999 with Bayer Leverkusen, Donovan and the Bundesliga club came to a loan agreement that took him back to the United States and the fledgling Major League Soccer with San Jose Earthquakes in his native California. Back in the west coast sunshine, the youngster recaptured his confidence and form ahead of Korea/Japan while helping to earn San Jose their first MLS title in 2001.
Little was expected of Bruce Arena's side in Asia as they had only managed to reach the knockout phase once in four attempts since 1990. But Donovan, never short of self-confidence, fired a warning to potential detractors before the finals got under way. "With a professional league (MLS) and the opportunities it affords us, I think we are ready for international competition, maybe more ready than ever," he said.
Occupying a position just behind the strikers, he played a telling role with his quick feet and passing ability, shining in an American team that opened with a shock 3-2 win over European heavyweights Portugal in Suwon. After a subsequent 1-1 draw with their South Korean hosts, Donovan grabbed a goal of his own in the defeat by Poland that closed out the first round, before then putting in one of his finest performances in the Round of 16 win over arch-rivals Mexico – the very team he had celebrated his first cap and international goal against back in 2000.
His well-taken strike in the 65th minute doubled Brian McBride's early opener to send the Americans through to the rarefied air of a FIFA World Cup quarter-final. Despite losing out narrowly to eventual runners-up Germany in a hard-fought contest in Ulsan, the United States – led by the searching orchestrations and youthful vigour of their young playmaker – had enjoyed their most successful finals since the inaugural competition in 1930.
Donovan was now arguably the most-recognisable American 'soccer' player and while he has not enjoyed the success abroad of other US internationals since – he played a few games back at Leverkusen in 2004/05 before joining LA Galaxy and had a short loan at Bayern Munich in 2009 – he remains a hugely influential figure for his national team. Donovan was an ever present in the Americans' disappointing Germany 2006 campaign and has enjoyed some memorable highs subsequently.
In 2008 he became his country's record scorer and also their youngest player to reach 100 caps, as well as earning the MLS Golden Boot. The following year he then hit two goals as the US reached the final of the FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa, losing 3-2 to Brazil – their best-performance yet in a FIFA tournament.