Donovan proud despite early Cup exit

CARSON, Calif. -- Landon Donovan is back from the World Cup, weary but wiser and wishing the Yanks' fabulous, infuriating run wasn't yet done, ready for the next chapter in soccer's rise as an American sport -- both on the field and in the hearts of fans.

The Galaxy forward, who scored three goals as the U.S. exceeded expectations in South Africa by winning its first-stage group and then lost in overtime on a reasonable path to the quarterfinals and maybe semifinals, knows there are no easy answers, not for any of it:

" The team's entrancing comebacks to tie England and Slovenia and last-ditch victory over Algeria, and its failure to proceed as deep into the tournament as was possible.

" The emotion stirred among Americans packed into the stadiums or watching from restaurants, bars, offices and living rooms across the country, and how to capitalize on that currency.

" The whole concept of what progress really means.

"We were very proud overall with our performance," Donovan said Friday at a media gathering at the Home Depot Center, where he has rejoined Galaxy preparations for the second half of the Major League Soccer season. "At the same time, I think we felt that the [round-of-16 defeat to] Ghana was a game we should have won. ... People have a tendency to assume that there is linear progression from World Cup to World Cup, and it couldn't be further from the truth.

"So [after reaching the quarterfinals] in 2002, people expect that in 2006 that is going to be the minimum threshold for performance, and it's not true. France and Italy were in the World Cup final four years ago, and neither of them got out of their group [in South Africa]. That happens from every World Cup to the next one. Some teams are in the quarterfinals, semifinals, final of the World Cup, and then they don't even qualify for the next.

"People need to understand that part of it, and the fact that we've now qualified for six in a row -- two out of the last three we've gotten out of our group -- I think that's a fantastic achievement for our country."

Donovan had no answers for the Americans' tendency to give up early goals, as they did in three of four World Cup games (and, but for the crossbar, it would have been all four) -- "In certain moments we were just na´ve or maybe not concentrating, and we got punished a few times in a row," he said -- but he offered his support for coach Bob Bradley, who has taken the brunt of post-Cup criticism, mostly over lineup selection and tournament preparation.

'It's really easy when everything is said and done and the dust settles to try to point blame ...," Donovan said. "Bob has done a fantastic job with our group, and I think we've grown a lot in four years. The most telling thing about Bob's tenure with the national team is -- and we talked about this, all the players talked about this after the game -- that there's no game where we went into that we were in awe of or feared our opponent, and for the first time in a long time that's true. I remember when I came into the national team, there was a lot of teams we played against that you could see it in guys' eyes where we were almost scared, and that's never happened with Bob as a coach."

Whether Bradley should be retained as coach is "not my decision. Obviously, they will talk and work it out, but I'm certainly a fan of Bob's."

Donovan, who starred for the U.S. as a 20-year-old phenom in 2002 but struggled as the Yanks finished last in their group four years ago, scored the first goal and set up the second in the 2-2 draw with Slovenia and was the chief provider and finisher in the stoppage-time sequence to beat Algeria1-0, with elimination just moments away.

A devastating call, with Malian referee Koman Coulibaly waving off a perfectly good Maurice Edu goal (from Donovan's free kick) that would have beaten Slovenia, rallied to the U.S. team's cause Americans who couldn't find a corner flag or explain, even rudimentarily, the offside rule. Donovan's group-clinching winner against Algeria raised the buzz to vuvuzela pitch.

It has made several U.S. players, not the least Donovan, household names in the U.S., and America's best-known soccer player this side of Mia Hamm hit the New York talk-show circuit -- from David Letterman to Regis and Kelly to former college soccer player Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" -- on his trek home from South Africa.

"For a long time, I think our sport lacked star power, and for us as players it's not so important, but in the bigger scheme of things, I understand how big that is," Donovan said. "It's important for kids to recognize stars to feel like they can look up to certain players, and the beauty of our team is that we have a lot of guys like that. I understand when you score a goal like the Algeria goal, a lot of that is going to be directed at me, but the reality is we don't play an individual sport, and I think a lot of people have recognized a lot of different guys for doing well."

Donovan said the atmosphere in South Africa's stadiums was sensational, that aside from a group-stage game against Italy four years ago in Kaiserslautern, home to the largest U.S. military community outside America, "it was the most support I've ever seen consistently from game to game, and that's incredible because when you go to a World Cup, generally there are some fans from each team and then there's a bunch of just casual fans. This time there were fans from America, and we had a huge numerical advantage in most of our games, which was really special."

The U.S. team learned of the support back home through the Internet, on social-networking sites such as Facebook and through videos posted on YouTube.

"You get a sense of it, but until you get home, you don't realize it," Donovan said. "The 30 hours in New York, it was very evident. People are just genuinely really excited about what we did. It almost transcends sport, because you could tell these people weren't necessarily big-time fans, but they were just caught up on what was going on, and that's a pretty cool thing to be part of."

Is this a turning point for soccer, much in the way as the 1994 World Cup, played in the U.S., and the 1999 Women's World Cup, which captivated the country? Or is the interest more transient?

"I think there's two points to that," Donovan said. "I think there are people who will have watched the World Cup, been excited by it, enjoyed it, and they will now go back to whatever their lives are and, to some extent, they won't follow [soccer] in the same way. The flip side to that: My guess is there's thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands or millions of young people who are now inspired to play our sport. Time will tell how many, but for us it's a continuous growth.

"I know we're all 'Now! Now! Now!' That's the way our culture is, but it's not going to happen that way. As long as we're continuing to build our fanbase, build our support, that's all we can ask for.

"One day we'll look back and say we did a real good job of that."

Scott French writes the "Football Futbol Soccer" blog for ESPNLosAngeles.com.