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Landon Donovan

Landon Donovan Deserves Credit For Building US Soccer Culture


It’s fair to say that Landon Donovan and the US soccer public have always had a complicated relationship.

When he burst onto the scene all those years ago, everything about Donovan screamed insecure. He was talented – very talented – but every time he ripped off his shirt in a goal celebration, showed up with bleached hair, or fled from Europe defeated and craving the comfort of home, US Soccer reeled too.

Donovan emerged as the United States’ first potential superstar just as soccer – not the sport as a whole, but the distinct idea of American soccer – was flowing into the nation’s consciousness.

Back then, of course, it was little more than a niche that was taking more lumps than it deserved, and so there was a desperate need to see Donovan succeed.

We wanted him to be everything. And he wasn’t.

So the Landycakes theme emerged. The narrative about Donovan being soft, and Donovan being coddled, and Donovan throwing away his career in MLS gained traction.

Tucked away in those jabs at Donovan were American soccer’s own insecurities. We wanted a genius who wasn’t so tortured. Someone who wasn’t so complicated for our often self-loathing soccer culture to unreservedly point to as the best in the world.

But Donovan always has been, and still very much is, a human being first and a soccer player second. Why else would he be retiring as he’s playing his best soccer at the relatively sprightly age of 32?

That’s what Jurgen Klinsmann could never figure out.

It’s hard not to walk away from this final salvo thinking that by the time he came back from his sabbatical, Donovan was too good for Klinsmann.

Baffled by a player who left the game of soccer to find happiness and salvation, Klinsmann didn’t try to understand Donovan. He just ran away from him.

A coach who can’t figure out how to connect with his best and most valuable player isn’t much of a coach.

And that’s where Klinsmann, who divided each compliment of Donovan with a caveat this week, stands right now.

It will be interesting to see in the coming years how angry Donovan becomes over his 2014 World Cup snub. With the circus that was this summer, his retirement, and his final season with the Galaxy, Donovan has hardly had time to slow down and think about what was done to him.

It’s never been in Donovan’s nature to get too bent out of shape, but the real end of his national team career still feels horrible every day, especially on the day his ceremonial national team career ended too.

Donovan has always loved playing for his country best, and he enjoyed the hell out of his final night in a US jersey against Ecuador on Friday in East Hartford, CT. That he hit the post with his best chance is nothing but a wistful side-note.

Donovan was, in fact, terrific all week. His acknowledgement of his depression around his sabbatical in 2012 has led into what might be one of the most interesting and important pieces of his varied and steep legacy: An increased awareness and understanding of mental health issues for athletes.

Donovan spoke candidly and thoughtfully, and even had the best line of the night when asked what Klinsmann had to say to him during the evening.

“I should have taken you to Brazil,” Donovan cracked.

I laughed. And I thought about a time when Donovan was such a painfully awkward interview you felt almost bad listening to him.

We’ve watched Landon Donovan grow up, and this soccer country has grown up alongside him.

There was a time when many in this country wanted a new face of American soccer. Clint Dempsey, a very good player in his own right, was always a leading candidate. There was hope for Michael Bradley too.

Problem was, when the world looked at American soccer, they were drawn to Donovan. Like clockwork. Year after year. Around the world, Donovan was the US national team.

No one was as good as him. The vision, the skill, the pace, the blinding mental speed at which he worked, all made Donovan an irresistible player. The best we’ve ever had.

He might be playing the best soccer of his career now too, Donovan. He has reestablished himself as the most valuable player in MLS, as LA marches towards the Supporters’ Shield, MLS Cup, and possibly the mantle of best MLS team ever.

So while it’s sad to see Donovan go when he has so much left to give, it’s hard not to be thrilled for a guy who we watched grow up and find happiness. It’s impossible not to be proud of him.

Donovan was passionate, and kind, and classy, and there’s a thousand great stories about Make-A-Wish kids and fantasy football and Newtown, and guys like that just don’t come around very often.

In fifteen years, Donovan’s own personal journey and transformation was as remarkable as it was admirable.

His was, in many ways, the quintessential sports story: A person who battled through adversity to hit his professional peak – against Algeria in 2010 – but more importantly, battled through depression to find fulfillment in life far beyond the pitch.

Because after all, the best sports stories always have very little to do with sports.

He leaves us now, Donovan does, and while life after Landon will be hard, the rapidly growing American soccer empire will be just fine – and someday better than ever. So will the man who, more than any other, helped build it.

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  1. StellaWasAlwaysDown

    October 14, 2014 at 12:13 pm

    I think Donovan deserves a lot of the abuse he’s gotten in regards to his going AWOL on the USMNT for a while, retiring, etc. But there’s no doubt in my mind he took US Soccer and MLS to another level. Would I say he is a legend? No. But he is the first of what I hope is many good players for the USMNT in the future.

  2. Smokey Bacon

    October 13, 2014 at 5:38 pm

    I just cannot understand the hate directed to this guy by people not fit to lace his boots. I was at the game in Hartford the other night and the mood was a celebration of a fine career. Along with Diskerud, he was the best player on the pitch and almost signed off with a goal. Taking him off killed the atmosphere and it was no surprise when Ecuador equalized.

    I enjoyed watching him when he played for the Earthquakes and I was glad to be there for the end. No question he helped elevate US soccer for me.

    • Iancransonsknees

      October 13, 2014 at 10:28 pm

      That’s a far cry from Cold Blow Lane

      • Smokey Bacon

        October 14, 2014 at 9:05 pm

        While it lacked the sheer intimidation factor of the old Den, the stadium was a bit of a dump in my opinion so it had that much in common with Cold Blow Lane.

  3. Bergkamp_10

    October 13, 2014 at 2:30 pm

    I only look at footballers in those 90 minutes out on the pitch and what the guy does when he has the ball at his feet. That’s my viewpoint. In those 90 minutes, I always saw a professional player with exquisite touch and technique. I really could care less what he does off it. Klinsmann always had a bone to pick with Donovan. For some reason, he did not like him. He constantly told the media that he would drop Landon and that he would not keep his first team place and always kept saying that even if Landon hadn’t done anything to even merit this claim by Jurgen.

    So really I mean, it was Klinsmann who slowly but surely got his wish. He just didn’t like the guy and hence the best US player wasn’t playing in the world cup due to Klinsmann making all sorts of excuses to try to get him off as far away as possible.

    Say what you want, nobody gave more than Landon in those 90 minutes. A truly genuine quality player who could still have done so much more right in the center of the park for United States team.

    Klinsmann had ego and he could not control it. He just had to have his say and he got what he wanted.

    Good luck Landon and I wish you all the best.

  4. Taylor

    October 13, 2014 at 10:53 am

    I believe this is the same author who sang praises that Donovan is a “pioneer” in US soccer.

    Too good for Klinsmann? Sorry, every coach wants to win and Klinsmann would have been dumb to leave Donovan if he thinks he can still contribute.

    Can’t stand the beatification of him.

    Yes, he is a good player. He deserves a special send-off, but please stop treating him as if he’s a saint

    • Jamie

      October 13, 2014 at 1:53 pm

      Exactly, a real nice player, and you don’t score the amount of goals Donovan did in the World Cup by being a stiff. Plus, soccer in the US grew into a legitimate sport during the time Donovan was the best player… draw your won conclusions. He was a link to the past (’98 debacle) and the present, kudos to Donovan on a great career.

      But, to say he’s ‘too good’ for Klinsmann—a true legend in the game—is a bit much. In trying to pen a measured piece this author flew his Donovan fan-boy cred a bit to high. Shame.

  5. Bishopville Red

    October 12, 2014 at 10:20 pm

    I’m not buying the first two comments for a second.

    i agree that he could have done more as a footballer (or maybe couldn’t – that was his limitation) but in the US, the guy got similar name recognition as Beckham and was one of the few soccer names that people could offer up as easily as mainstream US sports stars. That’s pretty damn good for selling the game, IMO.


    • Flyvanescence

      October 12, 2014 at 10:41 pm

      That is down to propaganda. Here in the States people pretty much buy into whatever they are told to.

      • Bishopville Red

        October 13, 2014 at 8:45 am

        …and they bought into him. You;re missing the point. The statement wasn’t whether or not he’s any good; the statement was that he deserves credit for helping build soccer culture in the US. Which he did. Without question.


  6. Frill Artist

    October 12, 2014 at 10:15 pm

    The only thing he built was laziness and taking the easy way out like the guy above said.

    • Tim

      October 13, 2014 at 11:36 am

      HAHAHA this is a joke right? What is funny is that you are the minority with this view.

  7. Flyvanescence

    October 12, 2014 at 9:47 pm

    Could have been so much better. Took the easy way out and then retired far too early because he was bored with the game.

    That is his legacy for me.

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