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. 2. Pt. 1 can be read here.
At the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup Final, the USA and Mexico squared off at Chicago’s Soldier Field and a heavy Mexico fan base. With the USA trailing, Donovan stepped up with a game-tying penalty kick to swing the momentum in the U.S. MNT’s favor en route to a 2-1 victory and the USA’s fourth Gold Cup title. A big part of that team was USA captain and defender Carlos Bocanegra, who once again saw his longtime teammate shine in the limelight.
Carlos Bocanegra: “Landon has always done well for us in pressure situations, and when opportunities like taking a penalty kick arise, he has normally buried them for us. That’s massive pressure. To be honest, I don’t remember him missing one throughout his National Team career.
“From what I remember about the 2007 Gold Cup Final against Mexico that included Landon’s game-tying penalty kick, it was a sold-out Soldier Field crowd that included 95 percent Mexican fans. That created an awesome atmosphere, and it made it even more sweet to win the Gold Cup that year.
“It was a tough game. Anytime we played Mexico, we had been getting the better of them for a little stretch and we were at the top of the region, which was great.
“But along with Landon’s ability to score in high-pressure moments, I think the biggest thing that I’ve noticed over his career when I was a part of the National Team was that he was always very opportunistic. He always pops up at the right places at the right time. He takes his chances and he has scored a lot of game-winning goals.
“One of the goals that I best remember and was very important for us was down in Honduras, where we won 3-2 in 2009 to qualify for the World Cup. He had a free kick at the end, and he shot it at the goalie’s side. He took his chances, and that’s probably what I’ll remember most about him.
“Landon is obviously a top player and one of the best we’ve seen in a long time, especially out of the USA. He has a very good soccer brain, and I think that goes unnoticed a little bit. He’s coming up on the assists record in MLS right now. What a lot of people don’t realize is he’s very clever in his thinking, so he’ll see some opportunities arising a few seconds ahead of everybody else. He’ll see a path or some space that can be exploited. He thinks sometimes two or three passes ahead, which at the top level, that sets him apart.
“You also see his technical ability, and he has an amazing fitness capacity. That is not to be discounted, because he can make those long runs and still have energy to have quality at the end of a game.
“Landon’s game, in terms of how soccer is growing and getting more popular, is something where the younger kids watch the stars on the National Team and want to be like them. His goal against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup – who wouldn’t want to be in that moment? I think a lot of the kids can relate to that. He performs in the big moments, and that’s what the kids want to see and who they want to emulate.
“For me, that moment was probably the best I’ve been a part of in my entire sporting career, with all the emotion and everything involved in that. Again, Landon was in the right place at the right time. He finished it off. I think it was a pretty cool moment for the whole country – soccer fans and non-soccer fans.
“With Landon, what you see is what you get. He’s excellent at his sport and he doesn’t try to really be anybody that he’s not. I think those qualities are what people appreciate about him. He’s been around the game for a long time. He was the poster boy for MLS and for U.S. Soccer for a long time.
“Just the other day we were talking a little bit about our upcoming professional retirements and our plans. It’s great anytime you have something in common with somebody, like with us both retiring right now, because you can bounce some ideas or feelings off of each other. It’s good to hear other people’s opinions and how other people are thinking about their situation as it relates to yours.
“When he steps back and looks at his career, over all the things that he has accomplished, he’s going to be pretty darn proud of what he’s done. I think he’s going to be very happy and very content in his retirement.”
The U.S. MNT opened the final round of FIFA World Cup Qualifying against Mexico on Feb. 11, 2009. Getting off to a robust start in the Hexagonal was imperative, and the USA defended its home ground with a 2-0 victory at Columbus Crew Stadium. In the closing minutes, Donovan drew several Mexico defenders on the left side and set up Michael Bradley’s second goal to cap off a memorable night for the 21-year-old midfielder.
Michael Bradley: “One of the things Landon was so good at was being able to collect the ball, start running and in a moment slow down and see the second runners. He started to move with the ball and as space started to close down, he was able to cut the ball back and see me coming from deeper. He put the ball right in front of me in a great way and I was able to take a touch and hit a good shot on a wet night that moved a little bit, gave the ’keeper some trouble and ended up in the back of the net.
“I figured out very quickly that in certain moments when Landon had the ball, if I was smart and able to find good space that he was going to be able to – more often than not – find that pass. That goal against Mexico was a great example. The third goal in our Confederations Cup game against Egypt was another very similar play. We were able to play a little combination and just as the defenders were stepping back, he rolled the ball into my path and I was able to score. It wasn’t just that he was able to find you – he would play you a ball that was good for you and could set you up to make the next play perfectly. To play with somebody who can see things at that level, that’s fun.
“Games between the U.S. and Mexico are always big games. And big players love to play in big games. We always got to see the best of Landon in those. The rivalry between U.S. Mexico, with all the atmosphere and the history, means so much for any of us who are lucky enough to step on the field. When you step on the field you immediately know what a game against Mexico means and I think he enjoyed the spotlight and enjoyed the pressure.
“Because of the way he was always able to play against Mexico for so long, he was always the one guy they associated with the U.S. National Team. As his career went on he was somebody who the Mexican players, coaches and fans grew to hate. But I would underline they hated him in the most respectful way possible – whether it was on their team or on some of their club teams Mexican fans and players would have killed to have him.
“There are so many moments that stick out in Landon’s career. The obvious ones come to mind: the goal against Algeria in 2010, performances against Mexico, or the other great goals he scored. For me, I was first a young player who came in the National Team who came in looking up to Landon, having watched him and what a role model he was. He played with all the Youth National Teams and showed at a young age that he was a guy who could contribute in a big way for the full team, too. It was amazing watching him and learning from him and the way he went about things every day.
“Over time, I built a real friendship with him and it grew to the point where we were guys who were on the field together on a lot of big days and in a lot of tough situations. It always meant a lot to me to be able to look in his direction on the field and know he was going to be a guy who could be counted on. Those are the ways I’ll remember playing with Landon during his career.
“I’ll remember the manner in which he always conducted himself in terms of being a leader and a good teammate. With the media, with all the pressure and with the spotlight getting put on him, he was able to balance everything and still know what was important. He was an incredible ambassador for the National Team and the sport in our country.”
The USA’s poise against Mexico continued to grow over the years, and on the road it took another step in that direction. Heading into its World Cup Qualifying match against Mexico on Aug. 12, 2009, the U.S. MNT had never led at the fortress of Estadio Azteca. That all changed when Donovan assisted Charlie Davies’ ninth-minute goal. Though Mexico eventually pulled off the 2-1 victory, it was clear that Donovan and the U.S. were a force to be reckoned with, both at home and on the road.
Charlie Davies: “I remember it like it was yesterday. We had all this confidence coming from the Confederations Cup and how well we did. So we were extremely confident in thinking we could go to Mexico and get a result at the very least.
“We also wanted to make history. We’d come extremely close by almost winning the Confederations Cup, so everyone was eager and there was that feeling around the team that we could do something big for the first time at Azteca.
“Once we got to the stadium, there were probably a good 80,000 people already in there two hours before the game. During the pregame walk, I remember before we got on the staircase to get up to the field, the noise was so loud. The fans were already buzzing; it sounded like a bee hive. No one wanted to go out first. We were all waiting for one of the guys to take the first step.
“Finally we broke the ice and walked out there in front of 80,000 fans giving us the whistles and boos, which was a first time experience that was pretty cool. It was also the first time I’d seen oxygen tanks at each locker for all the starters. Everyone had an oxygen mask to breathe into it was to combat the altitude. That was extreme to see, and the environment set it up to be that much more important to me. It felt like a World Cup final and not just a qualifier.
“I talked to Landon before the game and he reiterated how big that game is and what an awesome atmosphere it is to play in. Since it was my first time playing in Mexico, he told me, ‘Just play your game. Do what you did in the Confederations Cup in South Africa. Stretch the defense, keep them on their toes and continue to grow as a player.’
“He was one of those guys who believed in me from the beginning, so I always looked up to Landon. He’s Mr. Soccer of the U.S., getting to play with him was always exciting for me. It was a symbol that I made it. I’d always dreamed of playing for the U.S. Men’s National Team and that basically meant playing with Landon Donovan. So, when’s he’s sitting there telling me, as basically a rookie, that he believed in me, it gave me more confidence and more self-belief that I had what it takes to succeed at that level.
“In the lead-up to our goal, I remember seeing Landon coming forward and I was out on the left making a run from the outside in. It’s almost like he saw me for a split second, just enough time for me to believe that he was about to play me a through ball and get the timing right. He played an inch-perfect ball right into my stride where I was able to take just two touches before curling it around Ochoa.
“It was a moment where I was just thought, ‘Wow,’ I’ll be able to remember this joy and what it means to play soccer. It’ll be a moment that sticks out in my head for the rest of my career and Landon had everything to do with it.
“It was also something of a return for the pass I gave to him for our second goal against Brazil in the Confederations Cup. It showed the chemistry was building between us, which was awesome.
“The funny thing about that moment was nobody came to celebrate with me. I didn’t realize why until I ran to the corner flag, did a little dance and saw a couple beer bottles and some batteries fly toward my head. But, Landon talked to me afterward in the airport, telling me what a good job I’d done, what a great run that was and that he’d find me more times in the future.
“Big-time players show up for big-time moments, and that’s Landon. Everyone knew that he would show up. For those big-time games, you never had wonder, ‘Would Landon be OK? Will he perform at his best?’ You always could depend on Landon. I’ve seen him bury a couple penalty kicks against Mexico with ice water running through his veins; he was never fazed. You knew you were going to get a big-time performance from him every time. And, that’s the thing that sticks out to me is that when the U.S. was playing Mexico, you could count on Landon putting one in the back of the net.
“I want to say that throughout my experience with the National Team, Landon was a good friend to me. He always gave me good pointers on the field, off the field, and was always a guy I could look to for answers. If he thought I could do something better on the field, he’d be the first guy to tell me. He played a huge part in my growth with the National Team.
“He was a great teammate, and when I went through everything with my accident, he was there for me. That says it all about the kind of guy he is. I’m very fortunate to have had a lot of people support me, and he was there calling me in the hospital, sending me video games to play when I was rehabbing to make sure I was having fun and keeping my mind off things. Every step of the way he’s been not only a great teammate but a great person.”
The U.S. was on the verge of qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup when midfielder Mix Diskerud had the opportunity to combine with Donovan in an important fixture. On Sept. 10, 2013, at sold-out Columbus Crew Stadium, Diskerud provided the cross that set up Donovan for the USA’s second goal and a 2-0 victory. The goal was Donovan’s 57th of his illustrious international career.
Mix Diskerud: “Landon Donovan has a sixth sense, plus the ability to smell opportunities, and he has done that so many times. How else do you explain all the great things he has done?
“Seeing Landon – who I just used to watch on television, two-dimensionally – pop up in the right place in real life was a privilege. I am honored to have experienced and created combinations with him.
“During his goal against Mexico in World Cup qualifying last year, you remember moments like that, as sweet as they are. For that particular goal, all the movements from my teammates around me were close to perfect. I just had to do what was cut out for me to do on that play that day.
“It started when Michael Parkhurst created some speed with his run, which he continued after delivering the ball to me with some tempo that I could handle. By doing so, he forced one defender out of position.
“Initially, I thought about “flip-passing” to Clint Dempsey, who made a move further into the box on my side, but I felt like he was offside, so I pulled back with a flick to my next stride and continued toward the end line. I knew on instinct what Clint had done from his last position, and when I looked up and sideways, I saw Landon make an impact run into the same vector.
“In one move, I had three simple tasks: strike the ball before it went out of bounds, angle it just enough so the goalie wouldn’t dare to make a move toward it, and kick it low enough and with enough force that Clint or Landon would just need to deflect it for a goal.
“The movements on that entire play were just so right – that is just one example of how fantastic it has been to play for the U.S. National Team, because Mexico’s defenders really didn’t make any mistakes.
“In moments like that, you feel so proud to be a part of that successful attack. We’ve had tons of different creative and instinctive combinations comparable to that in practice.
“The fans’ reaction in the back of the goal was incredible. I saw a woman with blue hair and crazy guys spilling their beers. I wanted to be a part of that, too. I’m an adrenaline junkie and I can’t recall having felt much better after that moment.
“Landon leaves us with an abundance of examples to replicate or follow up on. He is the kind of guy who has always led by example.
“There are some types who can’t retire by definition – heroes, that is. All they can do is quit annoying their opposition.”