Landon Donovan is the Vincent Van Gogh of American soccer. A man whose achievement may only truly be appreciated once he is gone.
With Donovan’s U.S. men’s national team farewell game on Friday night, it is worth taking a moment to compare the style of his retirement to Derek Jeter’s. One finely choreographed and legacy-defining with its New Yorker cover and Nike Respect video. The other sudden, slightly awkward, and barely reflective of the athletic smorgasbord of records to which his name is connected: the 57 national team goals and 58 assists he has notched. The five World Cup goals he netted in 12 tournament games, or the MLS goal scoring categories led: 144 regular season, 22 playoff, and six All-Star Game goals.
Yet, those numbers do not capture the immensity of Donovan’s achievements because such a large percentage of America’s football-loving audience is relatively new. They have seen so few of the gilded moments that littered his career.
The majority savored his fairy tale 91st minute World Cup strike against Algeria, an emotion-soaked moment which could be considered “The Goal” in the same way as Dwight Clark’s 1982 NFC Championship-winning reception is “The Catch” or Michael Jordan’s 1998 Game 6 jumper against the Jazz is “The Shot.”
But how many can summon memories of his breakthrough as a bleached-blonde phenomenon who scooped up the Golden Ball at the U-17 World Cup in 1999? The crucial, brassy 2001 strike he thrashed home as a fresh-faced youth in his first MLS Cup final? Or even, the speeding, stooping header with which he killed off Mexico in the 2002 World Cup Round of 16?
Donovan’s career straddles a time of radical transition for U.S. Soccer. When the Californian entered MLS in 2001, it boasted just 12 teams, two of which soon folded as the league appeared on the brink of collapse. Serving as the nation’s best outfield talent back then was on par with being the country’s greatest yodeler or didgeridoo player. He retires with America in full thrall as the sport has ventured from the shadowed periphery towards the center of the nation’s sporting radar.
In the early 2000s, a boyish Donovan racked up goal after goal when soccer’s profile could be classified as “tree falling in empty forest.” Yet the era in which football edged towards the mainstream has coincided with a time in which Landon has suffered. The 2010 Algeria goal was a Susan Boyle-ish moment that thrust the player blinking into the cultural spotlight, forcing him to adapt to sudden national fame, and crowning him as the only footballer every American knew by name (and perhaps the nation’s most prominent Landon, bar Michael Landon).
A loss of motivation ensued. A candid Donovan publicly wrestled with his mental fatigue, embarking on a controversial sabbatical to try to restore his passion for the game. I interviewed the Californian twice in this period and he sounded like hundreds of people I knew who had lost their love for their job. I was impressed by both his self-awareness and willingness to brave the derision of those who refused to sympathize with his predicament.
Unfortunately for Donovan, Jurgen Klinsmann was amongst those who lacked patience, ultimately axing the national team talisman from the squad on the eve of World Cup 2014. A humiliating, dramatic departure on par with Eddard Stark’s.
This World Cup rejection was not the only bruise to pockmark Donovan’s career. The 32-year-old’s early, fleeting attempts to establish himself in the Bundesliga conjured a scent of failure, which poisoned the achievements he routinely unfurled here. A product, perhaps, of the hint of self-loathing, frustration, and inferiority laced into American soccer culture in the 2000s.
Odd then that the one set of fans who adore Landon unequivocally are those of Everton FC, the Premier League side with whom he savored a brace of intriguing loan cameos in 2010 and 2012. Football’s equivalent of painting a miniature work of art on a grain of rice. Everton had been a one-sided team, raiding opponents down the left flank. Donovan’s fleeting presence gave them a genuine right-sided threat, providing balance and forcing opponents to play them honestly. The loanee embraced the opportunity with gusto, lancing the accusation he could not play abroad in the process. To this day, Everton fans praise Donovan full-throated in a way I believe all Americans will in time.
Donovan’s is a career that will be reappraised the more MLS grows, and the greater the United States national team’s global standing becomes. Like Jimmy Carter, whose approval rate grows the further removed we become from his presidency, he will be seen for what he is. A human, complex, always intelligent, often breathtaking footballer. A genuine U.S. goal threat in an era in which American goalkeepers were more the norm. A home-loving player who suffered for his decision to remain in MLS, a reality which is now standard. An inventive spark on national teams built to persevere. A divisive figure in the United States who is admired in England, and both feared and respected in Mexico. A human being in an image-dominated age who knew exactly when he needed to take a break.
While filming the U.S. team before the 2014 World Cup, one of the things that struck me was how much the young players respected Donovan and deferred to him on group decisions within camp. Landon took that leadership role seriously, but admitted on more than one occasion he looked “forward to being a normal person again.” In 2012, he told me he hungered for a time when he could do what “he wanted and needed as opposed to what was expected of him,” suggesting he had a lot more to give in his life than just assists and goals on a soccer field. We will soon learn exactly what that is.