STANFORD, Calif. – Landon Donovan's decline as the United States' greatest soccer player ever ironically began with his adult life's defining moment of personal introspection.
As far back as the 2012 season, Donovan battled some internal struggles, and he vocalized as much during an interview later that year. So it wasn't a surprise when Donovan embarked on a sabbatical from the game that included a trip to Cambodia and saw him miss two months of action with the Los Angeles Galaxy.
The recharging of batteries overseas seemed to have renewed Donovan's hunger for soccer, for a while at least. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann dropped him from the U.S. team and made Donovan earn his way back, and the motivational ploy seemed to work when Donovan regained his swashbuckling form during the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup and was recalled for the Americans' remaining World Cup qualifiers.
But before long, the whispers were back, and the questions centered on whether Donovan had the same spring in his step as in those early hungry years of his career. That absence of drive and subsequent lack of form cost the USA's all-time leading scorer a place on Klinsmann's 23-man World Cup roster.
I didn't notice anything different about Donovan until we had a brief conversation in the Galaxy locker room following a game late last season. The tone of Donovan's words were striking in that he was so different than the Donovan I encountered on and off in previous years.
He spoke at some length of his trip to Cambodia, how the process of deciding and booking the trip for himself had been just as cathartic as the actual journey. He also asked about different places I had traveled, a little about the nature of my work and what a typical week involved. To me, his curiousness suggested he was envious less of those who got to travel but of those who got to do regular things for themselves.
Many athletes say they crave a normal existence, but in most cases they just really mean they would like a little more anonymity. At that moment, it felt like Donovan was genuinely wondering what life would have been like without his soccer talent as just a regular guy from California's Inland Empire.
Friends said Donovan was determined to become a better person, or at least a broader one, with a more worldly view and a wider range of experiences. It was said his conversations with many people, from colleagues to club workers and pretty much everyone he encountered, went through a slight but noticeable change in that his focus became more about establishing a connection with people on an intellectual level. Apparent to everyone was Donovan's desire to educate himself and broaden his horizons.
Perspective, experience and an ability to take a wider view can be huge positives for a soccer player. Unfortunately for Donovan, it seems that his interest in everything else may have taken something away from his game.
In interviews during this current Major League Soccer season, Donovan said all the right things publicly, but he appeared from the outside to be struggling to sustain a genuine passion for what he was doing. Klinsmann, in fairness, tried everything to snap him out of it, cajoling and criticizing when needed and giving a very stern and public warning at the start of the current pre-World Cup camp that Donovan's place was far from assured.
That assertion made for good headlines but was widely dismissed because, after all, how could the U.S. drop Donovan? He has been a fixture on the men's national team, and no U.S. fan under voting age remembers a World Cup without him.
Klinsmann said Thursday that other players were "slightly ahead" of Donovan in explaining the stunning omission, but he is no fool. He would have needed real, convincing and compelling reasons to take this action. Training sessions at Stanford are closed so information is limited, but word leaked out that Michael Bradley had won the grueling "beep" test last week, a physical challenge normally won by Donovan at past U.S. camps.
Klinsmann's choice could be seen as daring. There are plenty of international coaches who would have taken the big-name star regardless of form, knowing that to omit him would bring a torrent of doubt and controversy. But if Klinsmann was convinced in his mind that the player wasn't in the right place mentally, or didn't have the physical platform of fitness needed to get through a trying tournament, then in reality the decision was made for him.
Either way, Donovan was headed back to his home in Manhattan Beach on Thursday, and back to the Galaxy, which plays against the Philadelphia Union on Sunday night. He is a complex man, who may never be fully understood and might some day write an autobiography that will be well worth reading.
At some point, Donovan realized soccer is not everything, that life offers other treats that can be worth his time and attention. Perhaps in the end, the events of Thursday were the price that had to be paid for that fresh outlook.
But that is an approach that leads to a clearer mind and a greater sense of happiness, then the current disappointment he feels might just be worth it.