The announcement was inevitable. Seeing Landon Donovan score against Bayern Munich in a meaningless game somehow signified a type of finality reserved for movie scripts. When Donovan announced his plans to retire at the end of the 2014 season, the outpouring of support and gratitude for arguably America’s best ever soccer player was immense. I found it a bit odd and capricious seeing as just over six weeks earlier, the majority of Americans acted as though Landon Donovan was not deserving of a chance to represent his country in Brazil because he dared to take a break and admit he was mentally exhausted.
Admittedly, I was a bit sad when Donovan announced his retirement, but not because of what happened during the previous past year-and-a-half. I was sad because of what had happened for the past 15 years, the good and the bad, coming to an end. Sitting in traffic, I resisted the urge to listen to anything sports-related and put on a classic rock station and heard a Neil Young song. “It’s better to burn out than to fade away”.
At the risk of channeling the oft-used cliché line made famous by the Neil Young song, “My My, Hey Hey”, the sentiment applies to Landon Donovan’s exit from the world of professional soccer. His presence in Major League Soccer and for the United States Men’s National Team was something most took for granted — including Donovan himself.
The California native, at 32-years-old, was – and is – the leading scorer in USMNT history, with 57 goals in 157 games for the national team. As a veteran of three World Cups, Donovan the player will be remembered for both dramatics on the field and off it. After being controversially left out of the final 23-man squad for the 2014 World Cup by Jürgen Klinsmann, his subsequent retirement from the national team seemed inevitable.
Donovan’s accolades are many, but they pale in comparison to the responsibilities he shouldered during his illustrious career. When Donovan burst onto the scene for after at the 1999 under-17 World Cup in New Zealand, his play led to the young American being recognised as the Player of the Tournament and made him the media’s selection for the Adidas Golden Ball award.
In 1999, the timing was almost perfect for the United States to welcome a fresh face to its international program after the embarrassment at World Cup 1998. Unbeknownst to a country whose palpable apathy for the world’s game was the fact that Landon Donovan would become the face of American soccer. And what transpired over the next 15 years was a career that embodied all that was promising and to some, disappointing about the archetype of the American soccer player.
Donovan broke no new barriers as a young American player heading overseas to ply his trade. A generation of mainstay American players had to go abroad to get paid to kick a ball before Landon Donovan ended up in Germany at Bayer Leverkusen. After being spotted by Leverkusen at a youth tournament, he signed a six-year contract with the German club and in doing so, consigned himself to the spine-snapping pressures of performance that other young American players at the time simply were not face with on a daily basis. When Donovan started his career, the state of American soccer was in tatters, MLS was on life-support, the national program was stagnate (again), and a generation players who helped redefine the American game where on their way out.
Here was a young man whose remarkable promise and potential seemed held back by his failure to assimilate to life in Germany. What many forget is Landon Donovan was part of the inaugural group of promising young talents amalgamated under a pilot development program in Bradenton, Florida, dubbed ‘Project 2010’. The objective of placing players in a residency program was to mimic the training and lifestyle environment of successful footballing countries. That initial class that had a rich crop of players including DaMarcus Beasley, Bobby Convey, Oguchi Onyewu and Kyle Beckerman to name a few. The “plan” itself was laughable, both at the time and in hindsight.
While the other members of his class stayed in the United States either playing college or finding time in a struggling Major League Soccer, Donovan languished in Germany until finally being loaned to the San Jose Earthquakes for the 2001 MLS season. Stateside, Donovan’s immediate impact with the Earthquakes and with the USMNT suggested he needed to play domestically. At this point, however, Landon Donovan was not just a talented player; he was the budding icon of the men’s game, which drastically trailed the women’s in terms of on-field success internationally.
One of the most troubling conundrums regarding Landon Donovan lies not in his statistics as a player, which are telling his of quality, but in the role he played in American soccer’s growth and success. Many associate and credit the players from the 1990 and 1994 World Cup teams for putting soccer on the map in a tumultuous and overtly anti-soccer professional sporting landscape. Even some of those original troupe members turned media pundits bask in the idea they played the pivotal role in creating a modern soccer culture and established league in the United States.
The reality is Landon Donovan, by becoming the face of American soccer and staying the course and remaining with Major League Soccer, has more right to this acknowledgement than anyone else in the modern men’s game in the United States.
Regardless of why he stayed in Major League Soccer, Landon Donovan shouldered the task of being the league’s talisman. His play on the field both with the Earthquakes and with the LA Galaxy placed Donovan in California, his home state. He was made to play second-fiddle to the David Beckham circus when it came to town, and he found a way to perform alongside the most marketable footballer on the planet at the time. He has continued to perform alongside Robbie Keane and other big names for the LA Galaxy.
His goals in the 2002 World Cup and the injury-time winner against Algeria galvanised a nation of soccer converts that either watched Landon Donovan grow up, or grew up with him. What is most peculiar about his evolution is it mirrored that of the MLS and US Soccer. He broke records and played with and against some of the world’s great players who chose to continue or end their careers in MLS.
Landon Donovan, for all his quirky characteristics, made his team and team-mates better. His ability to play a variety of attacking positions both highlighted his quality all the while casting him into the shadow of criticism often reserved for players whose production numbers fluctuate.
The former Leverkusen youngster will always be a figure shrouded in criticism and, as a player he could not win for losing. His sub par loan spells suggested that his potential had hit its ceiling due to his staying in Major League Soccer to many in the soccer world. We will always question what Landon Donovan we would have seen had it worked out in Europe.
Would the United States be as drawn to its national team stars if he had achieved most of his success on the pitch in Europe, thousands of miles away from home? Or, was his staying in a league that is still by its own admission growing a decision that consigned Donovan to a career trajectory whereby any decision he made was the wrong one? Leaving MLS for Europe would have placed Donovan in a talent pool of attacking players much deeper than that in MLS; would he have just been average there? Staying in MLS meant the world and his own people perceived him as a figure lacking ambition to challenge himself against the best.
There is no right answer and Landon Donovan, unlike many of football’s greatest stars, performed at the international level in big tournaments with alarming frequency. He’s scored some of the most important goals in U.S. Soccer history and in multiple World Cups, a task that some of the best players in the world simply have not done. The accolades, the success, the failures saw the mainstay of American soccer lose his motivation. Soccer, to him, has became less of a passion and more of job and for a player who carried the weight of a nation and helped convince it to care about the game, there was nothing left in the tank. At 32-years old, Landon Donovan hung up his boots. This is hardly a case of a player succumbing to the physical demands of the game. Players who retire at 32 are either plagued with injuries, loss of form, or simply cannot find a club.
Donovan’s ailment was mental and emotional exhaustion. When other players in American soccer were able to hide in the shadow he cast forth, Donovan soaked up the attention, the criticism, and the spotlight. When he decided to take a break from the game 18 months before he retired, that spotlight really turned into an act of spotlight hunting against a player who admitted it was becoming increasingly more difficult to find the same motivation to train hard consistently and perform during a World Cup qualification cycle. The public and media jumped all over him.
To hear him talk about soccer, his tone suggested he had grown bored of the routine. The other stars of American soccer, most notably Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley, went abroad to play and Landon Donovan stayed in Major League Soccer. Upon their return to MLS, they were greeted as messiahs championing Major League Soccer, whereas Landon Donovan was the pariah. Neither one of them has had impact that Landon Donovan has in the domestic game and on the international stage.
So who is next in line to shoulder the responsibility of being the face of American soccer? The current crop of well-known U.S. players have shown age is not on their side, so perhaps one of America’s young dual-nationals or homegrown talents must emerge. The American sporting public is fickle regarding its athletes. To suggest one of the greatest players in American soccer history, the man who holds the MLS and USMNT goalscoring records, somehow hasn’t done enough or dare lose motivation after starting his career as a teenager is telling of the disparity between expectation and reality for American soccer.
Donovan embodies a player born and raised in the US, who found his way to the professional ranks and performed in an age where it seems all US Soccer really wants to do is find the next young talent developed abroad and convince him to play for the United States.
The fact of the matter is American soccer will not understand how good Landon Donovan was until the search for the next Landon Donovan becomes more elusive and difficult. Sure, the powers-at-be will use some clever marketing to attempt to make someone the face of American soccer, but the likelihood they live up to the standard Donovan set is uncertain.
Will the next player have to play in Major League Soccer for the best years of his career, a move that will almost certainly set him up for the same trajectory as Donovan’s? Or, will they be afforded the patience to try to play overseas and only have to perform internationally for the USMNT to be considered the next Landon Donovan? I ask because Landon Donovan did both — he helped grow the league, helped the national team’s resurgence, basked in the limelight, and absorbed the criticism.
And now, Landon Donovan would rather burn out than fade away — and for once, on his terms, not anyone else’s.
By Jon Townsend. Follow @jon_townsend3