When Landon Donovan walks off the field in East Hartford, Conn., on Friday evening, he will do so as, in the mind of many, the United States's greatest soccer player of all time. As he slowly makes his way to the sideline and hands off the captain’s armband, tears could well flow, and not just from the man himself. It will be a moment of undeniable poignancy and celebration for what the 32-year-old has achieved in his 14-year career with the U.S. Men’s National Team. And yet, the buildup to that moment has not been dominated by tributes as one would expect for a player of his stature and an occasion of such magnitude. One quote from current U.S. coach Jürgen Klinsmann summed up exactly why.
“As a coach, you always want to see a player who drives for his 100 percent and I’m looking at Landon always that I wish, in a certain way, he could have done a bit more here and a bit more there,” he said.
It was a line that delved further into the rift between Klinsmann and Donovan that simmers uncomfortably around the edges of this historic occasion. But, while the timing of its delivery was arguably rather crass, Klinsmann struck upon a question that nags even at many of those who have no problem hailing the California-native as the greatest player their country has ever produced.
Donovan's value to U.S. soccer has been immeasurable, but his statistics speak volumes. In his 156 appearances for his country, second all-time, he has scored a record 57 goals and added another record in assists (58). In both categories, no other player even comes close to his mark and likely won’t do for quite some time. The U.S. emerged on the World Cup stage for the first time in the modern era in 1990, but it was Donovan who spearheaded the country as a force to finally be taken seriously.
At the 2002 World Cup, Donovan was just a slight 20-year-old, but the fearlessness he displayed to accompany his already evident pace and skill immediately added a new dimension to the starting lineup. It was Donovan who scored the second goal as the U.S. achieved one of its finest victories, vanquishing regional powerhouse Mexico to reach the quarterfinals.
While the 2006 World Cup in Germany failed to match the heights of his first, four years later came his, and perhaps his country’s, most indelible moment on a soccer field. Scoreless with Algeria entering injury time, the U.S. needed a goal to secure progress to the knockout phase. In a piece of extraordinary drama taken straight from a Hollywood script, the country’s golden boy delivered the vital strike to signal wild celebrations in the stadium in Pretoria and thousands of miles away across the U.S. in one of the moments that both signified and triggered the growth of soccer. He was the face of the sport in his home country, the flag bearer for its emerging league, Major League Soccer, and played a massive part in the development of both.
“When you look at the national team and where it is now, I am really proud to have been part of that growth,” he said during a news conference on Friday.
That appraisal came as part of Donovan’s defense for his decision not to push for a career in Europe. It's still the conundrum that dominates evaluation of his career: that the man widely regarded as the greatest American player of all time didn’t have any significant career in Europe, something that was always seen as a prerequisite for a U.S. player truly “making it.”
Donovan’s first chance to go abroad came when he was snapped up by Bayer Leverkusen as a teenager. But soon he was back home; one decision that he now states he has some regrets over. “I got there and it didn’t go well and I bailed,” he said candidly on Friday. “What I wish is that I had people to tell me how it was going to go.”
Donovan was back in Germany in 2009, in what was to prove the start of a relationship with Klinsmann that brought the most testing moments of his career. Recruited by the then-Bayern Munich coach on loan in 2009, Donovan's time with the European giants lasted just six matches. In 2010 and 2012 Donovan had his most successful forays abroad when on loan at Premier League side Everton. He did more than enough to show he could be a factor in such elevated company and there was much talk that he would sign permanently. Instead, to the displeasure of many, he went back to Los Angeles and the Galaxy to continue to be the big fish in the relative small pond of MLS.
When Klinsmann took over the U.S. national team in 2011, he repeatedly stressed his desire for American players to avoid falling into a comfort zone. To the German World Cup winner, proving yourself in Europe was a must. Yet his star player stood in sharp contrast to that belief. After Donovan took a three-month sabbatical from the sport in late 2012, Klinsmann far from welcomed him back with open arms. From then on there was a sense of Klinsmann questioning Donovan’s desire at every turn. His decision to leave still the country's most recognizable player out of the 2014 World Cup squad rightly created headlines, but some may have seen it coming.
It was a move that robbed Donovan of the chance to perhaps bow out on a high. Instead, he does so in a friendly against Ecuador amid an atmosphere of undeniable tension, which Donovan admits was why he was initially ready to turn down the honor of a final sendoff. It is hugely unfortunate, but hardly unexpected, that the coach was not present by Donovan’s side as he met the press for the last time with the national team. When asked to describe his relationship with Klinsmann, Donovan flashed an uncomfortable grin and simply said, “you know.”
Klinsmann intends to drag his adopted nation toward the next level, where it can truly be a contender in World Cup. Although, it remains to be seen if that will prove successful, it is certainly to be admired. At the same time, the contribution made in getting the U.S. to its current point, one hard to imagine a generation ago, by the man sacrificed by Klinsmann in Brazil should never be forgotten.
Facing the media in Connecticut, Donovan showed that he is a rare breed among top sportsmen -- a deep thinker who talked openly about his depression and plans to contribute a more meaningful legacy away from the field. Going to college now awaits a man who is also an outlier in his home country for not emerging through the collegiate system. Despite what the coach on the sidelines in his final game may continue to think, it would be tough not to agree with Donovan’s own assertion that his decisions led him to becoming the best he could be for himself, and thus for U.S. soccer. For that he is deserving of all the acclaim that comes his way.