Landon Donovan became an Olympian before the first of his three World Cups, first of his 57 senior international goals and first of his 156 U.S. Men’s National Team caps.
Donovan, then 18 and blond-haired, was the youngest member of the 2000 U.S. Olympic men’s soccer team that finished fourth at the Sydney Games. Olympic men’s soccer is for players age 23 and younger, with three over-age exceptions.
He flew to Australia with a pedigree, having won the Golden Ball as MVP of the 1999 FIFA Under-17 World Championship, where the U.S. was also fourth.
Donovan did not play in the first two U.S. Olympic matches, draws with the Czech Republic and Cameroon, which led fans, including Donovan’s father, to criticize coach Clive Charles.
“We need to get him some experience without the press saying, ‘Why isn’t he playing?'” Charles told The New York Times. “My job is to find the best time to play him.”
Donovan was dubbed the “18-year-old wonder” by the New York Daily News.
“Donovan sat Wednesday, for 90 minutes plus injury time, because Charles didn’t think he was ready for the pressure,” the newspaper reported after the Czech Republic match.
Donovan debuted in the third match, coming off the bench and scoring on a give-and-go with future World Cup teammate Josh Wolff in a 3-1 win over Kuwait in the group-stage finale.
View the goal here, along with the great Andres Cantor‘s signature call. Cantor yelled “Goallllllllllllll!” for 14 seconds, and then again for 10 seconds, as Donovan leaped over signage and sprinted toward the stands.
“We all expected to get through our group,” Donovan reportedly said after the win. “U.S. Soccer’s not at a point anymore where they’re saying, ‘Let’s try to get a win here and pull off a win there.'”
It was the beginning of Donovan growing into the spotlight. He was under contract with Bayer Leverkusen in the German Bundesliga at the time, one year before debuting in MLS. From the Philadelphia Inquirer:
Landon Donovan was on stage at a news conference in the bowels of the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Tuesday after the U.S, team had defeated Kuwait to advance to the single-elimination portion of the Olympic men’s soccer tournament.
His teammates were on the other side of a barrier, hooting and whistling. Ben Olsen mimicked applying lipstick.
A lot of American soccer fans, desperate for a real hero in their sport, can’t wait to anoint this 18-year-old who plays professionally in Germany as the one.
His teammates treat him a little differently.
“Superstar?” Olsen said when asked about Donovan. “Oh, yeah. We’re going to give it to ‘Superstar’ until he’s 21. He’s got a couple more years of this.”
Donovan also converted his penalty kick in a shootout win over Japan in the quarterfinals. If the U.S. had won either of its last two matches, Donovan would be an Olympic medalist. But it fell to Spain (with a 20-year-old Xavi) in the semifinals and Chile in the bronze-medal match.
The U.S.’ only Olympic men’s soccer medals came at the St. Louis 1904 Games, when all participants won medals as only three club teams from Canada and the U.S. competed.
Tim Howard was also on the 2000 U.S. Olympic team but did not see a minute of game action as a backup to 2002 U.S. World Cup star Brad Friedel.
Donovan earned his first USMNT cap and scored his first senior international goal in the same match less than a month after they Sydney Games, embarking on what many are hailing as the greatest U.S. men’s soccer career of all time ahead of his farewell match Friday night against Ecuador in Hartford, Conn.
The U.S. failed to qualify for Olympic men’s soccer in 2004 and 2012, and Donovan was not one of the over-age players on the Beijing 2008 team that was eliminated in the group stage.