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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