It was World Cup 2010 in South Africa and the US Men's Soccer team was in a particularly ambiguous position. While the team had improved since its previous years and the team was optimistic and poised for success, its resolve would be tested in its first match against England. The two teams had not played each other in a World Cup match since 1950. It ended in a 1-1 tie, granting neither team the inspiration of a victory or the frustration and motivation of a loss. Slovenia was the next opponent and again that match ended in a tie. Lastly it was Algeria and the relentless play continued into the eightieth minute, then into the ninetieth with still no score. Would this match end in yet another tie, eliminating the US from the tournament? In those moments, the only thing in the stadium keeping its composure was the steadily ticking game clock.
As the final minutes counted down, a shot on the US goal is saved, and the ball is tossed down the field. With his world-class speed, American Landon Donovan sprints after it, ahead of an opponent by only a single stride. Advancing down the field, he passes. A shot is taken. Deflected! The ball lingers in front of the goal as an American and an Algerian tumble into the net after a struggle. The ball is just sitting there! Like lightning, Donovan comes from behind! The net is open. He shoots! GOOOAAAL! The US Men's Soccer Team won the game, 1-0, won the group and preserved their integrity.
While they weren't able to progress much further in the tournament (they were later eliminated by Ghana), that victory remains a key moment in last-minute soccer history as they maintained this stoicism throughout the match. In its final moments, instead of focusing on the ninety grueling, disheartening, scoreless minutes that they had already played, the team focused on the time that they still had. The stories of Landon Donovan's optimism, arguably our greatest American soccer player, don't end there.
In the run-up to World Cup 2014 in Brazil, the difficult dynamics between Donovan and the new head coach of the US National team Jurgen Klinsmann reached a crescendo as Donovan was unexpectedly cut three weeks before the World Cup. All of the US soccer faithful, including aficionados, the media, and of course Donovan, were crushed. Rejection from any team qualifies as adversity, but this was his national team, his red, white, and blue, and his World Cup. Nevertheless, Donovan returned to the LA Galaxy immediately, with his game face on, to play against Philadelphia on May 25, 2014.
Here, once again, we all witnessed his "ninety-first-minute optimism." Surrounded by his team and mentors, he prepared physically, mentally, and emotionally. He employed the Big 5, which I've written a lot about in The Win Within. He was going to get up, suit up, and play on - no matter what. When the whistle blew, he was back to the process, the journey, and the game. The crowd was tense but came with signs and cheered Donovan on at every possible moment. Then with a burst of speed, his patented full-field sprint, the pass, the give-and-go to Robbie Keane, the sprint and then, GOOOOAAAALLLL! He scored not one, but two historic goals and concurrently broke the all-time Major League Soccer (MLS) record of 135!
Donovan got another opportunity to display his signature optimism with the MLS All-star game vs. Bayern Munich - a match played in Portland, OR and filled with World Cup and global soccer stars. Once again from my sideline perch, I watched him enter the game in the second half, the score was tied 1-1. Play was tight. Then in the 69th minute as Donovan makes a vintage run towards the goal, Diego Valerie delivers a long ball to his chest. The volley and the outcome ...GOOOOOAL!
The winning goal and the MVP...once again the Mission, Vision and Plan as Donovan became his most valuable player. It was historic and a pattern that this athlete has conditioned us to expect.
He never lost focus but instead redirected his passion, positivism and hope. As one door closed, he immediately opened another. It was so fluid and transparent for me to see once again, from the sideline and in full view of the world, that we were witnessing the Victorious Spirit and the Win Within in action!
This is survival at its highest form of thriving. Congratulations Landon! Congratulations for showing us that the life of sport and the sport of life are beautifully linked.