When Landon Donovan separated from his actress wife Bianca Kajlich earlier this year, the Hollywood gossip columnists were caught flatfooted.
Despite Donovan's status as the United States' best and most famous soccer player and "Rules of Engagement" star Kajlich's string of big and small screen credits, news of the split filtered slowly, rather than exploded, into the glossy magazines.
In North American soccer circles, however, the Donovan-Kajlich breakup created a bigger stir. Not because the beautiful game has yet reached the intense levels of micro-scrutiny that it is afforded elsewhere in the world, but due to the perception that the development could significantly influence the career of the Los Angeles Galaxy forward.
The glaring omission on the 27-year-old's soccer resume continues to be success in one of Europe's big leagues. With a stunning wife ensconced in Tinseltown, it appeared that any likelihood of a full-time move out of Major League Soccer was dwindling. Donovan made his third stab at Germany's Bundesliga earlier this year, but it was never a situation that smacked of permanence. The tryout-turned-loan run at Bayern Munich ended after a few months.
But now, the goalposts have shifted both personally and professionally for Donovan. He is running out of chances to make an impact in Europe, the ultimate barometer for success in club soccer, and the ties to California, which made such a decision so fraught in the past, are no longer in place.
Separation from Kajlich, whom he married on New Year's Eve 2006, came with understandable sadness for Donovan. Friends say the split (which made Hollywood headlines last July and was described as "amicable" by a spokesperson for the couple) affected him quietly but significantly, yet it never impinged upon his devotion as a teammate or commitment as a professional.
By his own admission, it will have an effect upon his upcoming choices regarding a transfer, whether it comes at the end of this MLS season or following the 2010 World Cup.
"It does make a difference," Donovan said in an exclusive interview with Yahoo! Sports. "It certainly makes me think about things in a different way to how I would have done before.
"I don't want to go into all the ins and outs of what happened [with the separation], but it is inevitable that when you have a change in your life it is going to give you a different perception. When you have big decisions to make they are going to be affected by your personal situation. Everything gets taken into account."
Saturday marks the beginning of what may be the most important nine months of Donovan's soccer life. The cauldron of the Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, is where the U.S. can secure a place in next year's World Cup with a victory. Defeat would be a blow, but not necessarily a terminal one. Next Wednesday's clash with Costa Rica in Washington D.C. would provide a second chance, if needed.
But it is in Honduras, surrounded by a backdrop of civil unrest and political crisis in that troubled Central American nation, where Donovan and the rest of Bob Bradley's American side want to wrap things up.
"The last thing we want to do is go down to the final day," Donovan said. "If it comes down to that I know we will meet that challenge. Candidly, these games in qualifying are in some ways harder than actually playing in a World Cup or for our club teams.
"We find ourselves inexperienced in these kind of games. A lot of the guys are playing in Europe, it is almost easier to play a big, well-known European team because you know how to prepare, you know what to expect. But a road qualifier in El Salvador or Honduras? How exactly do you get ready for that?"
With all the uncertainty surrounding Saturday's game, one thing is beyond doubt. It will be expected, from Donovan himself to his teammates to the Honduran opposition and a nervously optimistic U.S. soccer public, that he will be the best player on the field.
That is the chalice Donovan carries every time he suits up for the national team. Once a burden, the distinction is now a status he enjoys. On current form, there is no reason to suspect anything other than a standout display.
Despite the upheaval in Donovan's personal life, his efforts have not dipped one iota this season. Indeed, he was the driving force behind both the USA's remarkable run to the Confederations Cup final this summer and the catalyst for the Galaxy's emergence from two seasons of excruciating ineptitude.
Some may see it as a man seeking to put personal difficulties behind him by immersing himself in work. Close friend and Galaxy teammate Chris Klein believes it is merely further evidence of Donovan's strength of character and the maturity he has developed since the disappointment of his poor showing in the 2006 World Cup.
"Every athlete has his life away from the game," Klein said. "It can be extremely tough. People handle things like that in different ways, but regardless of what happens in his personal life, Landon's focus and concentration will be there.
"I have so much admiration for how he conducts himself and handles situations. He is the best player in the country and he accepts that responsibility every time. He just keeps taking it to a different level on the field and he realizes that how he plays is a reflection of him. Just look at this season. He has been awesome."
Donovan's ongoing consistency for club and country is a major reason why former Galaxy general manager and national team star Alexi Lalas feels the time is finally right for him to succeed in Europe. Like Klein, Lalas has been impressed by Donovan's fortitude over the last few testing months.
"Every professional recognizes very quickly what they need to do to be their best on the field," Lalas said. "But athletes are also human beings, they have lives. What happens the other 95 percent of the time can have a positive or negative effect.
"Landon has shown some very strong confidence and will to battle through the personal challenges he has faced and has managed to focus everything on performing on the field. I believe he now has the physical and mental ability to succeed anywhere in the world that he wants to go. He has continued to challenge himself to improve.
"If he finds a situation in Europe, I would expect him to pick wisely. He needs to go to an environment that will translate into even more improvement.
"England is the league that players are gravitating to just now. I would love to see him in Spain, and I also think he would do very well in Serie A [in Italy]. He has that combination of physical, tactical and mental facets to his game."
Donovan is clearly beginning to see things in a similar light. The Galaxy has an option on him for two more years and would obviously be loathe to lose one of its two marquee names, especially with David Beckham's American future still unclear.
However, his departure does seem to be a case of when, rather than if.
"I would be lying if I said it wasn't on my mind," Donovan said of his eventual transfer overseas. "There are going to be opportunities for different things. Come January or after the World Cup we will see what happens.
"I want the Galaxy to be interested in keeping me and other teams to be interested in signing me. That means I am doing my job properly. That is the beauty of it: I can just worry about what I'm doing and the rest can take care of itself.
"The reality is that we will see whether the Galaxy is willing to let me go and if there is going to be a team that is willing to pay money for me."
American soccer fans have long debated about which European league would best suit Donovan's style and temperament. Spain's La Liga, with its technical proficiency and fluidity, is a common choice.
"I know the right place for me is not Germany," Donovan said. "I can tell you that much. I gave that a go, and again and again. I think we can say that's not the answer.
"Playing in Spain would be amazing. It would suit me technically and I think it would help me become a much better player. I would fit in well there, both in terms of football and lifestyle. The climate is better [and] I speak the language."
Spanish teams have known what Donovan is capable of, especially since his role in a stunning U.S. upset of Spain, the reigning European champion, in the Confederations Cup semifinals. His play in that game earned him a rave review from Spain and Barcelona superstar Andres Iniesta.
"Donovan surprises you with just how much skill he has," Iniesta said. "He thinks about the game in a very advanced way – that is the way we try to play in Spain and in the national team. It would be good to have him in La Liga. I believe he could be successful."
Things could happen very quickly for Donovan over the coming months. The checklist currently contains two items of immediate importance: to qualify for the World Cup and to help the Galaxy win the MLS Cup.
Even bigger prizes await in 2010, with the World Cup providing the ultimate showcase for his talents. If a lucrative and potentially career-defining transfer has not taken place before South Africa, a strong showing in the tournament itself should lead to one.
"Timing is everything," Donovan said. "I feel like this is my time."
Landon Donovan has pledged his support to the United Against Malaria campaign. For more information go to www.unitedagainstmalaria.org.
- Landon Donovan