ussoccer.com recounts some of Landon Donovan’s biggest moments against Mexico during his career and hears from players past and present who were part of those matches against the USA’s arch rival. This is Pt. 1. Pt. 2 can be read here.
With 2002 FIFA World Cup Qualifying on the horizon, Bruce Arena gathered a group of U.S. internationals for a training camp in Chula Vista, Calif. For seasoned veterans it was an opportunity to prepare for the 2002 FIFA World Cup Qualifying campaign. For 18-year old Landon Donovan, it was a chance to train (and potentially play) with the Men’s National Team for the first time. Chris Klein was also a young player looking to make an impression with Bruce Arena.
Chris Klein: “I was actually Landon’s roommate in camp leading up to that game. It was my first camp too with the full National Team. He was much different then – sort of a punk, and to have this young kid sort of act like that was a bit unsettling. He was this young kid, going through this process and I was getting to know him through the week and trying to understand who he was. I don’t think he had an idea yet of how to act and what it was like to play with the National Team.
“We were down at the ARCO Olympic Training Center in San Diego. There were a lot of older, established guys in camp with us, and Landon didn’t really understand his place. He’d had a lot of notoriety in the youth ranks and Bruce brought him in with these established guys like Jeff Agoos and Eddie Pope – guys who had played a bunch. Although Landon had all the confidence in the world, no one moved to put him in his place or lashed out at him.
“I enjoyed getting to know him and hearing about his experiences in Germany. What I got after talking to him was that he was insecure same as anyone else. He was lonely. I’ll never forget him talking about how he spent most of his time on a computer in a room because he didn’t have that much in common with anyone else at Bayer Leverkusen. Hearing that, I got where he was coming from with everything.
“Other people saw it too, but give Bruce credit for bringing Landon along. I was out after one of the squad games during that camp when Landon was doing finishing. Bruce was just commenting on how different he was. Different than any other player he’d seen at that young an age in the way he finished. I remember standing there – at that point I was young too so I didn’t say anything to Bruce – but, I remember hearing Bruce say that and taking it in.
“I don’t think I fully understood or realized what Landon would become. Looking back on it now, of course he scored in his first game and had this flair for the dramatic. In the big games, he always seems to show up.
“It’s amazing to think back 14 years ago about how Landon’s changed and matured. Forget off the field, the way he carries himself within a team is so different than how he was back then too. Thinking back on him being a pro at such a young age and hearing Landon talk about all the different things that have impacted him over the course of his life and career, you can put it all together. Now that he’s retiring, I get a full picture of everything with the sport of soccer that’s been laid on his shoulders over the last 14-15 years and it is pretty incredible.”
Following the camp in San Diego, the team bussed north to Los Angeles for a match against archrival Mexico at the LA Coliseum. Donovan was included on the subs bench and thrust into the action midway through the first half after Chris Henderson’s injury. In addition to scoring on his debut, Donovan also set up a goal that day for fellow forward Josh Wolff .
Josh Wolff: “I’d met Landon before through the Youth National Teams and the Olympic team Right away you could pick out the talent that was there. Then it was just the matter of him maintaining that hunger, that talent and that drive. Having seen him from age 15, 16 all the way through his professional career, that’s how it was all the time. He held himself to a different standard in training, in games and it’s a big reason as to why he’s succeeded the way he has to become the best U.S. soccer player to come through our Federation.
“We were a young team in a difficult situation: playing Mexico at the Coliseum in L.A., and it was quite the pro-Mexican crowd. But, it was enjoyable and it was a good environment to play in. Landon had earned his way into that camp like he did every one after that. That’s how it always works: You get a little chance because there’s an injury but something happens and then it’s a matter of seizing the opportunity. Chris Henderson hurt his calf and once Landon got on the field he wasn’t a normal young player.
“Having seen and played with him previously, I fully understood who he was and what he was about. He thinks and plays the game at a high level and when you get him in those situations his execution is fantastic. Whether he was 15-years-old playing with us on the U-20 MNT or 17, 18 playing with the Men’s National Team, his ability to adapt to the level of play was incredible for a young player – or any player for that matter. And even coming into that atmosphere against Mexico he quickly gives us a lift and enables us to get a good result in a difficult match.
“When he got on the field, he showed his quality with a goal and an assist. Like most times with him it’s about his pace and ability to make plays when under pressure and the game’s going quickly. His mind and his body slowed down and he took his goal extremely well. On the assist, he’s fighting his way down the left side and squeezed a ball into a tight spot where I just had to take one good touch and was through on goal. It’s not often you have a player that age who has the quality to finish and grab a goal but also set up plays for teammates. Both of those plays were difficult in their own right and fortunately for him and for us, it was just Landon doing what Landon does – making plays when it matters most.
“He produced against a lot of teams. When the games were the biggest and the moments were even more magnified, great players make it look easy and rise to the top. Playing against Mexico at the youth level, senior team, World Cup, whatever it may be, Landon’s as calm as they get when everything’s on the line. For him to do that at a young age in that game, it foreshadowed what his career was going to be about.”
Fast forward to 2002 and Donovan is part of the World Cup team competing at the tournament in Korea/Japan. After shocking Portugal in the opener and advancing out of the group, the USA dispatched Mexico in one of the most famous results in team history. Donovan would end up scoring the second goal in the defining 2-0 win. A beautiful sweeping move culminated in Eddie Lewis’ picture perfect cross which Donovan nodded home at the far post.
Eddie Lewis: “As with many young superstars, he came into the World Cup with his whole future in front of him and was too young to feel the pressure. He played with total freedom, total expression. He was always going to do big things.
“I remember three very specific things from the goal Landon scored: my first touch, a gaping hole, and the great white flash. My heart still races when I think about it.
“My first touch set me up perfectly for the cross and I remember a hole just outside of the six that looked like a perfect landing pad for a cross. At the same time, out of my periphery was this flash of white screaming toward the goal. It had to be Landon. At that point the goal was already half way in. The rest is history.
“The celebration wasn't a typical one. I remember screaming and then wanting to cry. I'm not sure why the tears were forming. I can remember huddling with Landon and Earnie Stewart. We were all hugging, laughing, and crying. It was a fitting moment for the team and the family we became – Earnie as my older brother and Landon as my younger brother.”
Gerardo Torrado was on the other side that day in 2002. The Mexico stalwart tangled with Donovan and the USA on numerous occasions during his decorated career for El Tri.
Gerardo Torrado: “I’d like to wish Landon the best in the next stage of his life and also say congratulations to him for the great career he had. A big part of that was of course the rivalry that has always existed between Mexico and the United States. It’s always been historic in the CONCACAF region and I think Landon was always an important player for the United States. Against Mexico, those games were always special for him to play and he tended to do well. I’
“That game at the World Cup in Korea and Japan, we ended up meeting in the Round of 16 and, well, the second goal was a play I remember. They attacked down the right side and crossed it in and Landon was the one who came in making the run and scored. It was a complicated moment for the Mexican national team. We were hoping to advance to the next round and I think that it was, for us, a big surprise.”
Three years later Donovan combined with DaMarcus Beasley on a nifty set piece play to cap a familiar 2-0 score line and seal the USA’s spot at the 2006 FIFA World Cup. The moment was special for Beasley and was a high point in a partnership that stretched back to a time when the two were teenagers with Youth National Teams.
DaMarcus Beasley: The day before we played Mexico in the 2005 World Cup Qualifier in Columbus, we had practiced the play that led to my goal – myself, Bruce Arena obviously, Landon Donovan and Claudio Reyna. So it wasn’t just an improvised play or anything like that. We worked on that in training and how we wanted to play that.
“Bruce Arena came up with this play that could work if we did it right. First I tapped the ball to Landon near the corner flag, and then he played a perfect ball to Claudio, with one quick touch above the box. Claudio’s pass back to me was great, as well, and I was able to finish it off. It was a play that Bruce I’m sure drew up before training and we ran it and it worked to perfection.
“That goal was important at that time. Leading up to that, it was a perfect play, a perfect moment, and a goal for me personally that I’ll never forget. For the guys giving me the ball, it was just a great goal that came together from the training pitch.
“It was a play where because I’m good on my left foot, it was easier to get the ball from Claudio to either shoot or cross to someone who was open. It started with the corner kick, where I played the ball to Landon. Obviously we knew how Mexico sets up – they might send two defenders out but they’re going to leave one person open, which happened to be Claudio. They were going to play two against three, and we knew that watching from tape and we tried to use that to our advantage.
“In our early stages, we were the young guys in every camp growing up. Whenever we went to the National Team, it was two 17- and 18-year-old kids, and that was it. Everybody else was 22, 25, 30, from playing with the Robin Frasers and those guys who were older than us – that’s how we are with the National Team now.
“We always roomed together on those trips, went to the Olympic team together – we were the young guys. It just made us become pretty close. And because we were roommates, it made it easier for us to get to know each other more, not just on the soccer level but on a personal level. It was great growing up from the soccer standpoint of it. It was a fun ride when we were young.
“When we were roommates, we were just kids who loved to play soccer. We had the same ambitions. We both wanted to play in Europe. He already was with Leverkusen. We were enjoying just playing. We had the same ambitions, and that boded well for a good partnership on the field and off the field. We were both shooting for the same things and the same dreams. We both wanted to play on the National Team one day. We both wanted to make a name for ourselves in soccer, and it happened.
“Playing alongside Landon for all these years has been a great ride. We’re both 32. Obviously our careers went in different ways. It’s been great to see how he’s done everything and still kept himself being Landon Donovan. That’s a lot of burden to carry.
“This kid comes in at 17, 18, plays well in MLS, the U.S. National Team and basically after that 2002 World Cup, he was the man. He was the man and he handled it very well. It’s pretty amazing to see him grow and mature as a man, as a teammate and as a player. Landon’s done remarkable things for this sport in this country. I’m happy to see he’ll enjoy his retirement, because he definitely deserves it.”