Landon Donovan Leaves Behind a Legacy as a Pioneer In US Soccer
If we’re being honest with ourselves, we knew that Landon Donovan’s retirement was a long time coming.
With Landon Donovan, there have always been very few secrets. His candidness, his realness, his humanness is legendary among American soccer circles.
After his sabbatical at the beginning of last year, how long did we really expect Donovan to continue playing?
When Jurgen Klinsmann – who tellingly hasn’t said a word on Donovan’s retirement as accolades have poured in from countless players and people including his boss Sunil Gulati – cut Donovan from the US World Cup squad, there was a kind of fury on Donovan’s behalf that was unprecedented in his long and storied career.
This week, as he announces his retirement effective at the end of the LA Galaxy’s 2014 MLS season, there is only resignation.
This is the hero we got. Donovan opened so many doors, had so many incredible moments, and deserves so much respect, more for his off-field behavior than his on-field accolades, I wouldn’t want it any other way.
There was always more than soccer to Donovan. It drove some people crazy – a superstar athlete without a one-track mind. But it’s always struck me as very admirable. Donovan is his own man. He has never let the sport that made him famous define him. Now, he leaves on his own terms.
I only hope Donovan doesn’t have any regrets about the timing of his departure. In recent times, as Donovan has lit up MLS for the LA Galaxy and returned, in a broad sense, to the menace he was in the first part of this decade, he has seemed to be truly and thoroughly enjoying his soccer.
By leaving now, Donovan exits on top of his game. He’s still an unquestionably elite player.
We’ll never see Donovan’s soccer powers wilt, and although he’s not physically what he once was, there is still today possibly no one in MLS you’d rather start a team with than Donovan.
But Donovan has never been a regrets kind of guy. There certainly is a world beyond soccer, especially for a star of Donovan’s stature, and he’s excited to discover it.
The signs were there in Portland that Donovan was saying goodbye. Because LA plays San Jose in the California Classico on Friday, the other LA All-Stars Robbie Keane and Omar Gonzalez opted out of the game.
Donovan said there was never any question that he would play. In hindsight, he wasn’t about to miss his last All-Star game.
All week, Donovan soaked up the occasion and atmosphere, and then he filed the ultimate mic-drop: A game and MVP award winning goal against a huge club that never game him a fair shake.
The kind of club, in this country, he was ridiculed for not succeeding with his entire career – with Klinsmann looking on, and possibly his US national team replacement in more ways than one, Julian Green, on the field playing for Bayern.
No one was clutch like Landon. That’s why, as Matthew Doyle put it, he’s probably revered more in Mexico than he is in the United States. He slaughtered El Tri. He played his best in World Cups and MLS Cups.
For a guy who always shied away from the spotlight, Landon Donovan was at his greatest when the lights were brightest.
Over time, the insults and negativity surrounding Donovan’s unwillingness to go to Europe full-time and commitment to MLS will fade away.
Donovan’s being in MLS carried the league through its 2.0 era, and while Donovan won’t be around to reap the benefits of MLS’ next and far greater phase, he leaves with the satisfaction that MLS has never been better, and that it’s now much more common for US stars to play at home than abroad.
Donovan was a pioneer. He was a pioneer for US Soccer, and in some ways a pioneer for how he treated the game.
He grew up in front of our eyes in the last decade and a half. From a brash kid with hair dyed bleach blond whose uncontainable bravado was meant to shield his insecurities to a wise, contemplative, honest, and whole man.
A rare good guy.
Donovan has every right to be drained – from this last summer alone. From getting cut, to setting the MLS goal-scoring record, to having this decision weigh on his mind, Donovan has to be exhausted.
He deserves an unequaled legacy, Landon does, and when the United States soccer community, in its entirety, builds that legacy, we’ll have fully accepted our own faults and success and unique version of the beautiful game.
Donovan is soccer in this country. Not Jurgen Klinsmann. No matter how much anyone wants that to change, it just won’t.
Of course from teams like the Galaxy, certainly Everton, where Donovan is still held in very high regard, and the US national team, Donovan has gotten his due praise and love. From teammates too, the response to his retirement has been universally terrific.
Donovan had more imagined enemies than real ones. Especially in his later days.
He’s not done yet, mind you. He’s got a season to finish that LA hopes will culminate in a record fifth MLS Cup. Due in large part to the play of Donovan, the Galaxy have surged up the Western Conference table, and only a fool would bet against them sending their hero out with the trophy.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that goal against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup here. It was a wide-open rebound in the box. Any midfielder charging into the box could have swept it home and vaulted himself into the realm of the immortals.
But of course it was Donovan who scored it. It was his moment. His team. His country. And it was the best moment United States soccer has ever had.
Donovan has left US Soccer in a much, much better place than when he came into it. Success in big ventures is often defined by the slimmest of margins. Don’t be so sure if we never met Donovan, soccer in America would still be on the seemingly irrevocable path to eventual glory it is now.
All I can say is Landon, it was an honor and a privilege to watch you play.
Goodbye for now. And good luck.