Californian dreaming of being England's worst nightmare

Phil Shaw
Sunday 06 June 2010 00:00

You can take the boy out of California. You can even relocate him to Merseyside in the middle of the harshest British winter in years. But you can't take the California out of Landon Donovan.

The 28-year-old midfielder from San Bernardino county is a disciple of a form of therapy established in the Golden State called Hellerwork, which combines "deep-tissue massage and self-awareness through dialogue". Donovan attributes much of his development as a player and a person to the understanding which the system – whose slogan is "healing the planet, one body at a time" – has given him of the inseparability of mind, body and spirit. That, and the highly productive 10 weeks he spent on loan from Los Angeles Galaxy to Everton last season.

Former Fulham defender Carlos Bocanegra will lead out the United States against England at Rustenburg next Saturday, but if Donovan is not shaking hands or shaking fists, he will be leading by example.

Approaching his third World Cup, he attributes his burgeoning authority in part to the 13- match "education" that he received in David Moyes' side, which ranged from seven Premier League starts to sampling the FA Cup and Europa League.

"It absolutely improved me," Donovan said of a spell that started at the deep end with a debut at Arsenal. "I learned a lot technically and tactically, and about how to keep myself motivated. It puts me in a stronger position for the World Cup. The biggest thing is having the confidence to play against anybody and fear no one. I've proved to myself that I can play against any player in the world, and that's pretty cool."

Among those he acquitted himself well against were Steven Gerrard, in a 1-0 defeat at Liverpool, and Frank Lampard, with Everton defeating Chelsea 2-1 during a 10-day period in which Donovan also helped them beat Manchester United. After his farewell game, a 5-1 rout of Hull City in which he scored his second goal, Goodison Park gave him the kind of ovation normally reserved for those who wore the No 9 shirt rather longer. "Forget about football for a moment," he said. "That was a life experience I'll never forget."

The task now is to come away from South Africa expressing similarly positive sentiments. Donovan performed impressively in the 2002 finals, scoring twice and helping the Americans match England by reaching the quarter-finals. Yet he fell below his own and his country's expectations in Germany four years ago. "I was someone completely unfamiliar to myself. I wasn't a very good person at that time."

He even uses the word "egotistical" to define the extent to which he was "not true to what I am". Between the last finals and the move to Everton, he underwent a divorce from actress Bianca Kajlich, courted controversy by criticising David Beckham's commitment to LA Galaxy (they kissed and made up) and failed to shine on loan to Bayern Munich.

Over the past 12 months, however, Donovan has looked himself again. After helping the US beat European champions Spain to reach the Confederations Cup final in Johannesburg, he scored against Brazil only to see a 2-0 lead turned into a 3-2 defeat. He also converted the free-kick against Honduras which booked their sixth consecutive finals appearance.

England's representatives in Philadelphia at last weekend's send-off game against Turkey will have drawn encouragement from seeing a defence which goalkeeper Tim Howard, the other Evertonian in the US side, conceded was "all over the place". But "assists" on both goals underlined the threat Donovan will pose as the US came from behind to win their penultimate warm-up fixture before yesterday's friendly with Australia at Rooderpoort.

First he set up an equaliser for Villarreal's Jozy Altidore, on loan at Hull last season, then his pass created the winner for Fulham's Clint Dempsey. Both assists stemmed from the right side, where Everton tended to deploy him, after Donovan suggested to coach Bob Bradley at half-time a switch from the left to get at a vulnerable full-back.

Only six of the 23-man squad have been to the finals before, so the know-how he has gleaned from more than 120 international games (plus a US-record 42 goals) could be critical to his team's prospects of advancing from a group which includes Algeria and Slovenia.

For Donovan, collective responsibility and personal growth are intertwined in a Californian way. The World Cup offers an "opportunity to show myself I'm a different person" from the flop of 2006. "There's no pressure, no concern," he added, sounding anything but a man fretting over what damage England might inflict. "I know I'm going to do well."

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