Through it all, Donovan did it his way

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Soccer more than any other sport has significant grey areas of success.

If you’re a great football player, you play in the NFL. Great at basketball? The NBA is calling.

But soccer? Well, there are seemingly endless worldwide leagues. Many of them take claim to being among the elite, though only some fit the bill.

The debate over whether top American talent should be playing in Major League Soccer or abroad (Europe, of course!), is perpetual. Just insert the latest name into the argument. Most recently, top U.S. players Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley stirred that pot, returning to MLS from high-profile European clubs.

And for the last 15 years, Landon Donovan has been central to that debate. He is arguably the best U.S. player of all-time, and he primarily honed his craft on home soil.

Donovan signed with German club Bayer Leverkusen as a teenager, but was unhappy with the situation and was loaned back to the San Jose Earthquakes. In 2005, he settled in full-time with the LA Galaxy, the team that has held his contract since.

But between then and now – the verge of Donovan’s retirement – the all-time MLS and U.S. men’s national team scorer was loaned to Bayern Munich – who declined to extend that loan – and twice to Everton, where he thrived in short stints.

Should he stay at Everton? Well why wouldn’t he?! He’s succeeding in the Premier League among the world’s best. The fans love him!

The debate was never-ending, but in the end, Donovan always came back to MLS. California, the Galaxy – that is home. Ignoring the critics – and there are plenty – Donovan always did things his way. That wasn’t always a clear, nor simple way, but for LD it was about being happy. He defined the word introspective. There’s more to life than soccer, he would reiterate, and he needed to be at peace, to look himself in the mirror. He went on a sabbatical in early 2013, when he said he rediscovered his love for soccer.

And Donovan kept things fun, even if only for himself. There were the bleach-blonde hair days of the early 2000s, which included the famous (infamous?) Brandi Chastain-esque sports bra moment. He even found a way to poke fun at himself after surprisingly being cut from the World Cup roster this summer. (Don’t forget about that water fountain photo, which may have been more fun for everyone else.)

On Friday, Donovan will play in the United States kit for the final time. He will start and captain the team – just like old times – before coming off after about 30 minutes to what will be an emotional scene in East Hartford, Conn. (of all places). He’ll keep playing for the LA Galaxy through the end of this MLS season.

These last few months have decidedly not been his way. Friday doesn’t come on the greatest of terms. Donovan was left off of the United States’ 23-man World Cup roster. Dropped from what would have been his fourth World Cup. Denied a chance for another magical moment on the world’s greatest stage.

His rocky relationship with now U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann is well-documented. Donovan told NBC Sports’ Dan Patrick on Thursday morning that he hasn’t yet spoken with Klinsmann about this game. He won’t see Klinsmann or the team until Friday, hours before the match against Ecuador.

What would Donovan say to Klinsmann? “Not a whole lot,” Donovan told Patrick. “I want to sort of just forget about that stuff and get on with what I hope will be a fun night for everyone.”

“At the end of the day this should be about what has been a really amazing career for me.”

Somehow, Donovan will find a way to make this cool October night on the outskirts of Hartford into his own, one last time.