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PRINCETON, N.J. – For Landon Donovan, the months leading up to the World Cup have featured a public divorce, therapy and the nagging itch of a four-year-old failure.
Yet four weeks out from the most important tournament of his career, Donovan credits the tribulations in his personal life with helping him attain the maturity and perspective that drives his World Cup dream.
Donovan and actress Bianca Kajlich, who stars on the television sitcom "Rules of Engagement," were married for three years before separating last July and finalizing a divorce in late 2009. In discussing that deeply personal subject, the 28-year-old United States forward refers to the relationship and the split as a catalyst for his improvement as both a man and a player.
"I think every comment I got when I told people I was getting divorced was, 'I'm so sorry,' " said Donovan, speaking on Day 2 of the USA national team training camp. "It is not always the case that it has to be 'sorry.'
"Sometimes you learn more from those moments than anything. For me that was certainly the case. It doesn't have to be something ugly or nasty. It can be helpful and you can grow from it. That is what we both took from it."
Soccer fans have become very aware of Donovan's recent maturation but didn't necessarily understand why. What they do know is that the past year has brought the kind of performances and development they have been waiting for ever since Donovan burst on to the international scene at the 2002 World Cup.
Back then, Donovan was a hungry, slightly cocky 20-year-old that helped the U.S. reach the quarterfinals, taking each day as it came and finding life – and soccer – pretty easy. However, disappointment followed, first in the form of a failure to settle in German club football after a transfer to Bayer Leverkusen, then with a poor showing for the U.S. at the 2006 World Cup that has gnawed at him every day since.
Soccer success no longer came so easily to Donovan and he was forced, with Kajlich's help, to see that a fresh mental approach was needed.
"Bianca taught me a lot more about myself than I knew," Donovan said. "She is an actress, and if you know that kind of life it is a struggle. I have always been blessed with my ability; she has had to fight for everything she has got.
"When you realize you can't take things for granted, it is hard. To hear it from your wife and best friend helps.
"Different things helped. Coaches, family, therapy and spending time looking at myself in an honest way. When you combine all that you don't have much choice but to learn about yourself. You get to a point where you find your way again and realize what it all means to you."
Donovan goes to South Africa with high expectations both for himself and from the public, after an excellent 2009 season with the Galaxy and an outstanding loan spell with English Premier League side Everton.
He is the creative spark behind the USA and is widely regarded as the team's best and most important player. He has also grown into the role of one of the squad's leaders, which has not gone unnoticed by head coach Bob Bradley.
"Landon has shown in the last year a great level of maturity and confidence and motivation to continue to move himself along," Bradley said in a recent interview with Yahoo! Sports. "He has talked about how he sees things differently, how he has changed.
"I think most importantly when you hear him talk like, that it is easy to see that he feels good on the inside about some of the challenges he has faced and the way he has improved – 'grown' is maybe the better word."
The growth of Donovan the player may be complete. He is at his peak and in tune with his game, his mindset and his role on this USA team.
But it is his fresh philosophy on life that could be the most important factor in Donovan finally fulfilling his potential and making his mark at the World Cup.
"There are expectations from people and that's a good thing, but what is most important to me is what I expect from myself," Donovan said. "As I have grown older, I've learned what to expect. I've learned what I can and can't do and to keep things realistic."
Team USA training roster
Orebro SK (Sweden)
Borussia Monchengladbach (Germany)
Los Angeles Galaxy
Hannover 96 (Germany)
Eintracht Frankfurt (Germany)
Los Angeles Galaxy
AGF Aarhus (Denmark)
Real Salt Lake
Puebla F.C. (Mexico)
IK Start (Norway)
Aston Villa (England)
Wolverhampton Wanderers (England)
Bolton Wanderers (England)
Aris Thessaloniki FC (Greece)
AC Milan (Italy)
West Ham United (England)
Source: USA Soccer