Since Landon Donovan’s final USMNT game is Friday night in East Hartford, CT, it’s time to talk about legacies. Yes, the well will certainly run dry on this topic in short order, but before it goes as bare as the Aral Sea, examining Landon’s legacy is important. Whether he is the best player to ever represent the Stars and Stripes is debatable. Whether or not he is the most important player to do so is, however, not debatable at all. So what is his legacy, other than being the most important player in the history of the beautiful game on these shores?

Simply put: Landon Donovan took the USMNT from a team that was just happy to be at a World Cup, to one that expects to be there and more.

When one thinks back to his first cap back in October of 2000, the USMNT was in a very different place. They were struggling somewhat in CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying, and were still adapting to life under Bruce Arena. The debacle that was France ’98 was well in the rearview mirror, but seeing the field through the trees was not easy. So Arena decided to gamble and give a cap to the Golden Ball winner of the 1999 U-17 World Cup in Nigeria. And the rest they say is history.

Landon always had a knack for the big occasion, and look at the 2002 World Cup as proof positive of that. Whenever the US needed a spark, Landon was always in the center of it, whether he was scoring or assisting. 38 of his 57 goals have come in competitive fixtures, including five World Cup goals. He was almost never invisible in his 156 caps, as he always made some sort of impact in every game. And you could tell how much it meant to him to represent the US every time he played, even with the pressure of being the big crossover star and wearing the No. 10 too.

Landon’s star has been fading for some time, but even then the outrage from him missing out on the 2014 World Cup roster had everything to do with his importance to all fans of the US National Team and belief in what he was at his prime, not necessarily in 2014. Prime Landon Donovan was transcendent not only in the States, but in Europe too. US Soccer hasn’t had another player like him, and his heir apparent is still largely unknown.

From 1990 to 2002, one could reasonably say the US was just happy to be in a World Cup at all. When Landon and the 2002 made it to the quarterfinals, expectations changed dramatically and permanently. Now, it’s expected that the US qualify for the World Cup, and advance out of the Group Stage every time. For a recently revived soccer nation and one that is still growing, that’s incredible.

If Landon Donovan of 1999-2002 was emerging now instead of when he did, people would be talking about how the US has a legitimate shot to win a World Cup sooner rather than later.

As Landon moves on, US Soccer will have to as well, which will be difficult considering the separation anxiety from this summer that still lingers, but also the fact that no one appears to be the crossover star that transcends soccer. The new face of US soccer will emerge, and who it will be can be debated endlessly, but that’s for the pub, not here.

Thanks Landon. Thanks for taking US Soccer to new heights, and making us expect, not just respect. The send-off you’ll get on Friday night will be well worth it.

Maybe Paul Caligiuri started it in 1989, Eric Wynalda and Alexi Lalas carried it through the 90’s, but Landon Donovan took it to another level in the 2000’s.

The next star up has huge shoes to fill.