On Friday, Oct. 10, Landon Donovan will make his final appearance with the U.S. Men’s National Team against Ecuador in East Hartford, Conn.
Some 16 years ago, a 16-year-old with loads of potential wore the Red, White and Blue for the very first time, representing the USA on the Under-17 Men’s National Team. Donovan wrote the first chapter of his legend by spurring the Americans to make history and gain much-deserved respect with a head-turning fourth-place finish at the 1999 FIFA U-17 World Championship in New Zealand, where he also earned the U-17 World Championship Golden Ball, awarded to the tournament’s top player.
The rest is U.S. Soccer history.
With Donovan’s retirement from international and professional soccer on the horizon, his Youth National Team coach, John Ellinger, and several of his former U-17 MNT teammates recalled his days with the U-17 side and what he was like on and off the field.
Before he was a member of the U-17 national side, there was great excitement about this teen phenom who could do some marvelous and magical things with a soccer ball.
D.J. Countess, goalkeeper: I remember hearing about Landon when we were in [Region IV] camp when we were about 15. Apparently there was some stud on the Alaskan state team. Everyone's saying: the Alaskan state team, how is that possible? Who is this guy? That was my first recollection of Landon when he was playing for the Alaskan state team as a guest player. I don't know how that happened because I know for sure he's not from Alaska. He came in and he really took over the regional event.
Seth Trembly, defender: When I came back [to regional camp] the next summer with my age group, the rumors were already were swirling around camp – a new guy from Cal South … Landon Donovan: this kid is the real deal. I remember seeing him at his first Cal South games and regional camp and making the regional team together. We got called into the All-Star game at the same time so we were pulling the U.S. shirt on for the first time together at about 14, 15 years old. He had this aura about him – there was a lot of promise and potential about him.
Kyle Beckerman, midfielder: The group was together already. This new guy is coming in and some guys are saying that this guy is talking that he wanted to be the Golden Boot winner in every tournament we play in. Some of the guys were thinking, ‘What is this guy talking about? We don’t even know him.’ But sure enough he came in and fit in with the team and started right away. He really lived up to the words he was saying that first day. He scored goal after goal and got assists. That was the first day we saw him. He had a belief in himself that he knew he was destined for some greatness.
Jordan Cila, forward: We saw him and we were like, ‘Oh my God, this guy is incredible.’ We hadn’t known him because he wasn’t on our team with the Under-16s. I think he had a leg injury that left him out of the mix that year, so he kind of came out of nowhere. It was like, ‘Wow, this guy is unbelievable.’
Nelson Akwari, defender: John Ellinger brought in a bunch of new guys – Alex Yi, Oguchi Onyewu and this young guy from California named Landon Donovan. He kind of came in, in our eyes on the second shift, so there was a little bit of an internal rivalry of the guys who were called in from the get-go and making camps for seven or eight months. For some reason we thought we owned the team. And then we had these new guys who came in as well.
John Ellinger, U-17 Men’s National Team head coach: I was the Under-14 coordinator for Region I. I was at the ODP event at Cocoa Expo in Thanksgiving of 1997. I was just watching the Interregional event between the four regions, East, Midwest, South and the West and that’s where I first saw Landon play as a player. My first impression was like, ‘Wow, this kid is highly technical.’ He finished his chances. He wasn’t a big kid, but athletically he was pretty gifted with work rate and speed. The most amazing thing was watching when he would break free past the defensive line, how he would actually pull away with the ball. It was one thing to pull away from a defender when there’s no ball involved, but he was actually pulling away with the ball from defenders.
Alex Yi, defender: Here was a guy already something really, really special from what we could all see. He already was on a different level from all the guys that were the supposed elite in the country.
Donovan went on to score 35 goals in 41 U-17 appearances. Moreover, he also created goals and helped make the team even more lethal, many times teaming with Cila.
Yi: We could quickly see he was a phenomenal athlete, a guy who was extremely quick, extremely fast. But on top of that already the cerebral part of his game was already developed. At that age, compared to the rest of the group he was extremely intelligent and had a really good football brain on top of his physical qualities. I remember thinking this guy is a machine, he can't be from this world; he was so clinical in front of goal. He always ran really hard. He was a nightmare to defend.
Trembly: He’s a 9.9 in pretty much all of the categories: fitness, speed, strength, finishing, first touch, great passer of the ball, which makes him a unique forward. He can score goals and he can create them. He and Jordan Cila on the Under-17s formed an amazing partnership. He got the best out of the player that played next to him.
Cila: There was an immediate connection. It was fairly special in the sense of the way our two styles of play meshed so well. I remember other guys on the field got annoyed sometimes with us because we always tried to get the assist to each other instead of being the selfish one and always trying to score. That made it so much fun to play with him. Even today I think people underestimate how unselfish he is on the field and how he always is looking to get teammates involved and finding space and getting others other space.
Ellinger: His ability to combine with other players was one of his strengths. It was also kind of one of his faults sometimes. Landon was a very humble young man. I had one conversation with him: ‘Landon, when you get that responsibility to score goals, you can be a little greedy at times,’ because sometimes after he scored a couple of goals he would basically start bringing his other teammates into the opportunities to score. And I can’t blame him. It was kind of one of those unique traits. He wasn’t one of those guys who was going to go out and score every goal.
Akwari: He forced me to play at a higher level and I am thankful I had that opportunity. The biggest thing at that time was making sure of where he was. As a defender, my mindset if I’m going to play well against him, I cannot allow him to turn and I can’t allow him to check back toward the ball, make a clean pass. He was quick enough and smart enough with his runs that he would check in behind you, take on your blind side as a defender, get into the space in front of you. At the Under-17 level, not many forwards will get into that position and make a clean pass to a midfielder who is facing the goal and be able to spin out and get in behind. If you turned your head for a second, in that split second Landon cut in behind you and made his run to the near post for an easy finish. All those things you learn later as a pro, Landon did them all extremely well at a very, very young age. So his soccer brain, whether it was natural or whether it was learned, was constantly moving. I loved it. I loved playing with him and competing against him because I knew I had to work really hard. I enjoyed that competition.
Beckerman: Landon kind of fast tracked a lot of the things. He was doing things we weren’t doing. Already after the first semester of Residency, Bayer Leverkusen came in. Landon was the first guy to have an agent. I think it’s way different now with guys 15 or 16 and they’re already talking to agents. We didn’t have that. Landon got to see first-hand this professional life. He was the first one to have a team come in and sign him. A lot of us had aspirations to be professional soccer players. It was cool and it was really neat to be close up and see what it was all about; Landon was the first to do that. We were in Bradenton for two semesters. The first one he was there. The second semester he was living over in Bayer Leverkusen already, playing with the reserves.
Not only had Donovan’s playing personality been forged then, but also his overall personality. He was modest and not very outspoken.
Ellinger: He was a very humble. Personality-wise back then, he wasn't like a Kyle Beckerman or a D.J. Countess, when those guys were a very outgoing kind of a character. He wasn’t withdrawn by any means. He was humble, a great player, a little on the shy side at times. But was very driven in what he wanted where he wanted to be with his game soccer-wise.
Trembly: He was a genuine, humble person. Having a twin sister has always kept him grounded and understanding that being a great soccer player doesn't entitle you to be a great person. He’s always been grounded that way. His teammates at the Galaxy, Everton and everywhere he has gone I’m sure feel the same way we all did. You respect a guy who has that much talent, who can keep his head and his mindset in that place where he understands he wants to be one of the 11 guys on the field, one of the 18 guys on our team. It really helps a good culture in the group when you see one of your most talented players with that attitude. It sets the tone for the group.
Yi: I always hear people say Landon lacks a certain charisma. He was the face of U.S. Soccer for so long, why couldn't he be this big personality that captivated the national audience whenever he went on these talk shows or won these awards? I think that's Landon right there. He’s really a quiet guy. He has a close-knit group of friends close to him. He was close to the guys he really trusted around him. In that team, we had several groups of guys comfortable with each other. We were all brothers. Landon kind of floated. He kind of got along with everybody really well.
Donovan certainly had a competitive nature that was second to none, whether it was soccer or any of the off-the-pitch pursuits he and his teammates would indulge at the very first U-17 Residency team at IMG Academies in Bradenton, Florida, as the team prepared for the 1999 FIFA U-17 World Cup.
Beckerman: Players and the families were flown down there. This was during the 1998 World Cup. Sunil Gulati and a couple of other guys from U.S. Soccer said, ‘Look this is an experiment. You guys are the first guys we’re going to try this on.’ John Ellinger really challenged us and said, ‘You guys have a lot of to prove, not to just in this country. We want to prove something to the rest of the world.’ He really created this environment where every single one of us had a chip on our shoulder. We knew every time we stepped in those lines, we wanted to prove something. In every sport and everything there comes cycles. If you look at that cycle, that class of ’99, Landon, DaMarcus [Beasley] Oguchi Onyewu, Bobby Convey, who was involved with the full National Team, they were a really successful cycle for U.S. Soccer. We dominated the CONCACAF region for the better part of 10 years since Landon was 19, 20 years old.
Countess: Landon is a winner and he is a competitor. Whether we were playing hearts, pool, ping pong, basketball or tennis, he's just one of those gifted, gifted people who figure it out real quick. No matter what he would be doing in competition, he’d be winning; he was trying his hardest to win. In that competitive nature, either you have it or you don't and Landon has that. He was always, always at the top of everything that we did, as a group, as an individual. He was just born a winner.
Not surprisingly, Donovan wore No. 10 for the USA back then, although his skills made him versatile enough to play several positions.
Ellinger: I’ve been on some teams that nobody wants to take the No. 10. It’s like the number of death. It’s one of those things I put them out and Landon says, ‘Yeah, yeah, I want to be the No. 10.’ I said no problem. So we put him at No. 10. We thought that was his best position anyway, right underneath the forwards, but close to goal. The closer to the goal that young man was, the better for the team.
Cila: His range of skills makes him so easy to plug into so many spots, which was what really made him so special as a player. It’s very true. He’s such a dynamic passer, so good in finding players in space. But you can't overlook his breakaway speed. He’s always had it. Whether it was from the striker or attacking midfield position he’s always had a great knack of getting behind guys and finding space to get on goal.
Donovan was racking up frequent flyer miles in those days, whether he was traveling with the U-17 team or commuting back and forth between Bayer Leverkusen and the U.S. team. Despite the constant traveling and great expectations, he kept up his end of the bargain.
Ellinger: We went to our first international event, The Montaigue Tournament, in March and April of ’98. In between games I was looking at things to show the players. So I brought a couple of VHS tapes and I had one on Ronaldo. I showed it to the guys and it was going through all of the goals he had scored that season. At the end of it Landon basically said to me, ‘Coach, mind if I can stay in the room and watch it again?’ And I go, ‘Help yourself.’ Ronaldo had this little go-to move where he looked like he would open up coming in from the left side. He would open up and show he was going far post and basically he would curl it right into the near post. We played New Zealand the next day. It was a 2-2 game. Landon goes in on the left side, opens up like he’s going to hit it far post and curls it into the near post, just like Ronaldo. This is who he was. He was always a student of the game before YouTube and the internet got to where it was. Any opportunity he could watch a game and learn something from it, he was all over it. It was the first time he had tried the move. We won the game 3-2.
Akwari: I loved the fact that he was a student of the game. I was able to pick his brain and talk to him about situations and things to look for as a defender as well. He can share those things in areas where I can improve.
Ellinger: I always felt we had the best striker in the business, and that was Landon – scoring goals against Man United’s U-19s, a ton of goals against Belgium clubs. We won 4-0 in the final. I just felt in all of our eyes, he had established himself as our go-to-guy. He became the player we all knew we could count on in clutch situations.
Beckerman: That tournament opened our eyes to see what these other countries were doing. They were already in a professional environment. When they brought up Bradenton, all of us were really on board. All of us wanted to be a part of this National Team and we were all excited to be in this professional environment to get the best coaching. At the time, it was the best place you possibly could be for 15-, 16-year-olds, soccer-wise, in the entire country. They put us on the same page with the players we saw from the other countries. It was exciting times. We got to the point where we would be playing these other countries, the Italians, the Germans, the English team. We would get the roster of both teams and we’d see the rosters of each team and you’d see, Landon Donovan, Redland Strikers or Jordan Cila, Commack United, and myself it would be Laurel Wildcats. You’d look on the other side, you would see Juventus, AC Milan and Bayern Munich.
While the USA stunned the world with its overall free-flowing performance and fourth-place finish in the 1999 FIFA U-17 World Cup, qualifying for New Zealand was far from a slam dunk. CONCACAF Group A qualifying was held in Montego Bay, Jamaica. The USA played Costa Rica to a 2-2 draw in the first game on Feb. 24, 1999, and defeated Honduras 3-0 in the second match on Feb. 26. They needed a win against host Jamaica on Feb. 28 to qualify and avoid playing in a home-and-home series to qualify as the third-place team. However, the team drew 0-0, and Donovan was issued a red card.
The USA and Group B runner-up El Salvador waited more than two months before their home-and-home series, and that first game on May 9 in San Salvador would be without Donovan. The second game was May 22 at Columbus Crew Stadium only weeks after the first soccer-specific stadium opened. The winner would book a plane ticket to New Zealand. The loser would stay home.
Akwari: The great thing in that situation between Jamaica and the El Salvador game we had time to train and prepare. When we played against the ‘second team’ now all of a sudden you have Landon going against you in training and he’s working his butt off because he knows he's not part of the team going to El Salvador. The one thing about Landon is that you don't want to get him mad and tell him that he can't do something. For almost a month and a half in training, our back four was getting Landon constantly running at us, trying to vent his frustrations about not being on the first team. Guys, 16- and 17-year-old guys, were giving him a hard time. We told him he was a reserve, he couldn’t get on the first team anywhere. All those things in jest ended up pushing him to beat us in practice even more.
Yi: The first leg was in El Salvador. We won 6-1. I’ll never forget it. It was the most hostile environment I ever experienced in my life.
Ellinger: There was a huge crowd in their national stadium. It was typical gamesmanship that you play. These kids are 16 and 17 years old. It’s not like they’re seasoned full National Team veterans. You don’t know what’s going to happen. In El Salvador, we prepared them for this. This actually happened. We’re at the hotel and we’re ready to go. You’ve got to be there 90 minutes beforehand. The bus comes, but it then doesn’t start, so we had to take taxis to the game. The team administrator went earlier. Myself and the team doc went in the last taxi. As soon as we left the parking lot, we went around these hedges and you can see through the hedges that all of a sudden the driver closes the hood of the bus, cranks it up and follows the taxis.
Akwari: We were nervous, going to El Salvador and having to play them first. We talked a lot about what could happen down there and what potentially could happen about bad calls going against us or just being in an environment playing against 25,000 El Salvadoran fans who want their team to win. Our locker room was right under the tunnel, under the stands. They were rocking when we got there. The guards were in riot gear. The El Salvador fans were cheering and taunting. In their minds, 17-year-olds were men. I’m from Texas and I speak Spanish, so I actually knew what was being said. They did their homework. They knew I was from Texas and I was a Nigerian playing for the U.S. They’re saying all these things when you’re walking into the locker room. This is before the earphones that could block all this stuff out. So you’re hearing everything and you're trying to get into the locker room before the barricades collapse. Landon was there. He traveled with the team, but obviously couldn’t dress. We were talking together. We got into a circle, which is what we normally do and he just said, ‘Hey, we won’t be the first team not to qualify.’ I told the guys we were going to win this. We would hold hands while walking out: We said we were going to stick together and we were going to get the result.
Cila: It was not an easy game by a stretch. It was a very hostile environment. Getting bags filled with different fluids of sorts of things while you're playing is never an easy environment for a 17-year-old to be in.
Akwari: We gave up a goal to start the game. It was an own goal, actually, a shot from 30 yards out. It deflected off of my foot. The fans are going crazy. We came back and I ended up scoring a goal at the end, so I got credit for scoring two goals, one against us, one for us.
Cila: It was a little bit scary because Landon wasn't dressing. It left everyone uneasy to think of playing a game of that magnitude without him there. But when we were playing and won that game, he was the biggest cheerleader on the sideline during that game going nuts. No one could have been happier when we won than him. That game in El Salvador was a special one for myself. I had a pretty good game. I remember looking over to him. On one of my goals he pretty much ran onto the field to jump on my back (laughs). I had three and some assists as well, and it definitely was one of my better performances.
Akwari: We were flying by the time we got back to the hotel, pointing to Columbus and have Landon being part of it. He said, ‘Hey we want to continue this streak. We don’t want to let down even though we clinched it.’
Ellinger: We played the next game in Columbus, and Landon, being Landon, just said, ‘I’m going to dominate this game.’ So we ended up winning that game, 4-0. I think he scored two goals and he got an assist. He was mad at himself for getting a red card, but he was closing the door on El Salvador when we were playing them at Columbus Crew Stadium.
Akwari: His grandfather had passed shortly before that game and he said he was going to score a goal for his grandfather. After the celebration, he puts up his shirt and pointed toward heaven. He was on a mission. He was getting an opportunity to redeem himself and to help our team qualify for the World Cup. He was like Landon always is: super fit, all over the place, taking chances, creating chances. He probably was celebrating the most that we qualified. He was happy that we got a result.
Cila: Landon was always able to channel his emotions on the soccer field. He played with so much passion. Some guys would block it out and soccer was an outlet for Landon. I always thought that soccer was where he was and who he was. That's where he let himself free and let the world see who he was, which was such a passionate, unselfish person. I remember that was a hard time for him when his grandfather passed. It was really special for him to score that goal and dedicate it to someone he loved.
The U.S. had a little more than five months to prepare for the Under-17 FIFA World Cup in New Zealand. In the group stage, the Americans defeated New Zealand in their opener, 2-1, on Nov. 10, tied Poland on Donovan's dramatic 89th-minute penalty kick on Nov. 13 and defeated Uruguay, 1-0, on Nov. 16. In the quarterfinals, the downed archrival Mexico on Nov. 20 before losing to Australia in the semifinals on penalty kicks after playing to a 2-2 draw in regulation and extra time on Nov. 24. The U.S. lost to Ghana in the third-place match, 2-0, on Nov. 27. Before the tournament, Donovan made an important decision.
Cila: I remember Landon came up to me before the world championships and said, ‘Hey, we really need to be roommates for the month in New Zealand. We need to be in perfect sync. We should be spending as much time together as possible, talking through everything.’ That was sort of the mentality he had. We viewed it as a real partnership. It was really, really cool. It obviously made us much closer. When you’re living with someone for a month and you’re playing a world championship for the first time and taking part in such an amazing event, I think it was really eye opening. One night we were sitting in the room and I said to him, ‘It’s kind of amusing. You come to the world championships and you expect to see all these great players, which we did.’ But I told him, ‘Landon, I don’t think there’s a player that we’ve seen here that’s better than you. You’re not just an amazing player in the U.S. But globally, you can be really special.’ That was kind of an eye-opening statement to us.
Trembly: For a U.S. team to be a favorite to go into international matches wasn’t there at the time. We had this huge aura and confidence around the team. We didn't talk about the unbeaten streak. It was there. It was something to be proud of. We played Italy in Italy and tied them, 1-1. We really stepped into this international rivalry where we believed we were invincible, so going down to the World Cup was that culminating moment for the team. Everything we did in the two years of build-up, all the travel, all the time spent in Bradenton, this moment was finally there. Playing New Zealand in the first match was awesome. There were 30,000 fans and it was a thrilling game. We scored a late game-winner. Coming down the left side, he's in a full out sprint and he slides and bashes it into the back of the net.
Yi: It was an impossible finish. It’s coming from his left side. He opens up his hip and barely taps the ball and it ends up going to the far post upper corner. This was a game where we kind of had our backs up against the wall. It took a lot of grit to come out of that game. There was a lot of rain coming down. It was really hard to focus. The game was going a million miles an hour but for Landon to have that kind of quality to manipulate his body with the ball coming in from the left side and to open up his hips and to tap it, a one-time finish on a bouncing ball to the far right-hand upper corner, it just blows you away. He’s playing the game at a different speed.
Ellinger: The penalty kick against Poland was a stressful moment [in a tied game]. He just tucked it away like he always did. When you go to these youth world championships they stick all four teams in the same hotel. So you're looking at these teams you’re going to play day in and day out. It’s like a mini-pressure cooker. You're eating with every team. You’re walking the halls when they’re walking there. You’re getting on the bus for training and they’re getting off the bus. You can’t get away from it. It just adds to the pressure.
Countess: There was never a doubt. There was never a shadow of a doubt in my mind. I never had to close my eyes and pray. I just knew my guy got it. He was that type of the player. Whether it was the second minute or the 90th minute, the guy found a way to make it happen.
Beckerman: We were down two goals to Australia. He took an unbelievable touch out of the air and just rifled it with his left foot into the upper corner of the goal. He spurred us on to get the equalizer. It was just the little things like that. He did the little things really well. He made the right runs. It was always a perfect touch. He always picked out the right pass.
Akwari: At that point, we were looking for some kind of inspiration and he provided it. It was one of those situations that all I could say was ‘Wow.’ There was nothing that the goalkeeper could have done, the defenders could have done. I realize at the time he was playing at a level that was above and beyond any other person.
Cila: He was head and shoulders above the rest. I think that tournament certainly gave him a lot of confidence he could really excel at the next level. Even at that age when other guys on days off would go out, want to go to parties and have a little bit of that freedom, he would sit in his room and watch soccer tapes and work with the ball by himself. He was so dedicated to the game. He cared so much. You felt so happy that someone with that natural ability was also working so hard and appreciating it and not taking it for granted.
Donovan was awarded the Golden Ball and teammate DaMarcus Beasley the Silver Ball for being the FIFA U-17 World Championship’s top two players.
Beckerman: He really deserved the Golden Ball. He showed up at every game. He played extremely well. The goal that he scored against Australia. I still see it today. It was just an incredible touch, great finish. It was a world class goal. Not only does he play well, but he makes the people around him play well.
Cila: When you get to that level, the speed of the game changes, the caliber of the players you’re playing changes and the whole game gets more difficult. For him, it almost made him better in a lot of ways. It allowed him to showcase his abilities in an environment where he didn’t have that same adjustment period that everyone else needed to get comfortable there. He immediately took to it. He was voted the best player of the tournament and that speaks for itself. From the first whistle, he was just who he was. Super consistent all over the field, never trying to do too much, never doing too little, always making good decisions. Finding the game when necessary, always finding the teammates when necessary. It never changed whether he played against a really poor team or the best team in the world.
Trembly: The awards were a little surprising. Landon won the Golden Ball and DaMarcus won the Silver Ball. We were a little bit surprised because there were so many good players that Brazil had. The fans really appreciated how we played the game and the style of soccer. I think that’s why Landon and Beas got the top two players of the tournament because we were so explosive offensively. It was so much fun to watch that. I think the New Zealand crowd probably hated us after the first game but they really took notice of ‘Wow, this was special and it was more than you see from an American team.’
Akwari: It was funny because of the way they had announced the awards. It was after the final between Australia and Brazil. We were in the stands watching the game. We were literally walking out of the stadium with our families toward the buses and we split from our families and we’re being escorted. On the loudspeakers they were announcing all the awards for like the Fair Play Award and everything else. They announced the Bronze Ball winner, the Silver Ball winner. No one knew. Me and Beas were roommates and we were good friends. We’re walking together and they announced it over the loudspeaker – ‘Silver Ball winner, DaMarcus Beasley’ and we’re all walking and we’re saying, ‘What? What? What is going on?’ We were freaking out. We were young and screaming and pushing Beasley. Then they announced Landon Donovan – Golden Ball winner. Half of us didn’t even hear it. I didn’t even hear them announce that Landon had won the Golden Ball over the speakers. Landon didn’t even know. I remember John Ellinger and Peter Mellor going to a stadium official and asking them. We had an award ceremony that night with all four teams, where they re-announced it as well. When we heard that it was crazy.
Even though we didn’t win the final, we didn’t beat Ghana in the third-place game, that plane ride back from New Zealand was special. We were laughing and joking insanely. We did the best we could. We obviously came up short in PKs and we lost in the fourth-place match, but to say that two of our teammates – and two Americans at that – were one and two in the world, that was something that we could all take pride in. It was something special. It was an awesome experience with those guys.