Landon Donovan burst onto the United States soccer scene in 1999, a teenager from California with a mullet and phenomenal skills rarely seen in this country. He won the Golden Ball at the U-17 World Championship that year in New Zealand, and Bayern Leverkusen offered him a six-figure Bundesliga contract.
He accepted and headed to Germany carrying a burden that proved overwhelming. American fans were counting on 17-year-old Donovan to become the home-grown overseas superstar they had craved, the U.S. Soccer messiah.
It never happened.
Donovan grew homesick, was unhappy, and his game suffered. He returned home after two years to join Major League Soccer’s San Jose Earthquakes, a decision that brought him great relief and joy, but left many fans wondering what might have been and questioning his fortitude.
Critics said he would never be considered a bonafide international star unless he made a living in the world’s most prestigious leagues, a knock that haunted him the rest of his career.
Donovan, to his credit, never felt the need to apologize for coming home. He wanted to be near his family. He loved California. And he wanted to grow the sport in America by making MLS stronger. He went back to Europe for loan spells with Bayern Munich (when Jurgen Klinsmann was coach) and Everton between 2009 and 2011, but neither led to full-time employment.
Donovan is 32 now, his hairline receding, and he announced in an emotional news conference Thursday that he’s retiring after this season. Despite never making it big in Europe, he became the face of American soccer over the past 15 years, and will leave the game as a beloved icon who broke every record for club and country.
His 57 international goals and 58 assists are unmatched in U.S. history. He scored five goals in three World Cups, including a game-winner in injury time against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup, arguably one of the most thrilling goals in team history. He won five MLS titles with the Earthquakes and more recently the Los Angeles Galaxy, and is the league’s all-time leading scorer with 138 regular-season goals, 22 playoff goals, and six All-Star Game goals, including the game-winner over Bayern Munich last week.
He will also be remembered as a free spirit, a guy who wasn’t afraid to be himself, even if it meant probably costing him a spot on the 2014 World Cup team. Donovan was lacking motivation and feeling mentally fatigued heading into 2013, so he took a four-month hiatus and traveled to Cambodia to find inner peace. That did not sit well with U.S. coach Klinsmann, who already had a complicated relationship with Donovan dating to their Bayern Munich days.
Donovan came back refreshed, returned to camp, and though Klinsmann repeatedly said the legend’s spot was not a lock, everyone figured he’d make the 23-man roster for Brazil. Klinsmann opted to leave Donovan off the team in favor of several inexperienced players, a shocking decision that drew a lot of criticism. Even setting aside his legacy, it is hard to find anyone who doesn’t believe Donovan remains one of the best 23 players in this country — if not one of the top five.
The reactions to Donovan’s retirement hardly sound like they are about a player cut from the national team this summer.
“When the story of the growth of U.S. Soccer is told, Landon Donovan will be one of the central figures,” U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said. “As a player, and as an ambassador, he is incredibly committed to the growth of the sport in this country. Landon achieved unprecedented success as he emerged as the face of U.S. Soccer, and helped bring the game to another level. His extraordinary accomplishments on the field are admired and respected both here and abroad. We look forward to celebrating his legacy.”
MLS commissioner Don Garber said: “There is no doubt the league would not be what it is today without Landon Donovan. … Landon is to MLS what Michael Jordan was to the NBA, Wayne Gretzky was to the NHL and Tiger Woods was to the PGA Tour — a player who’s sporting accomplishments and popularity transformed their respective leagues and set a new standard for how the game should be played.”
The most emotional response came from Galaxy coach and former U.S. coach Bruce Arena, who has coached Donovan throughout his career. Arena broke down sobbing in an interview with TWC Sports-Net. “There are people in our lives that make a difference, and he has as a player and a person,” he said. “I apologize for my emotion, but I’ve seen him as a young kid and now as a man, at the end of his career. To see the joy he had [making the announcement] and witness the suffering he’s experienced throughout his career makes me emotional.”
Said Klinsmann: “Congratulations to Landon Donovan on an absolutely amazing career. He consistently raised the bar for himself these last 15 years, and he set a fantastic example for so many other American players to follow. As one of the best players in U.S. Soccer history, Landon should be proud of everything he has accomplished.”
Asked how he would like to be remembered, Donovan said: “I hope that my teammates will say I was a good teammate. I hope that my coaches will say they enjoyed working with me and having me on their team. I hope that the fans enjoyed watching and could see how much I gave to this sport over the last 16 years. That’s really it, because at the end of the day, the goals and the assists and accolades and that stuff, in the end they don’t mean a whole lot to me. But the relationships matter.”
Klinsmann has a chance to send Donovan out with the dignity he deserves, to let him wear his U.S. No. 10 jersey for upcoming friendly matches this year. Let’s hope he does the right thing.