By Trey Mongrue
While the scoreboard at Rentschler Field in East Hartfield, CT did read “USA 1, Ecuador 1” there was in fact a winner last Friday night.
That became apparent when Landon Donovan, minutes away from taking off the USA soccer uniform for one final time, was drawn to tears as he watched a perfectly made highlight reel that captured every big moment he was a part of during his 14 years with the United States Men’s National Team.
An October friendly in the Northeast may not have been how anybody foresaw Donovan, who has announced his retirement following the 2014 Major League Soccer season, closing out his international soccer career. That said, it was a great closing sentence in the book of a man that has done a little bit of everything for the sport in this country.
“It’s certainly emotional,” said Donovan. “I’m very appreciative of this opportunity. Three months ago, if someone asked if this day would happen, I’d say that you’re out of your mind and you’re crazy.”
Only three months removed from 2014 World Cup in Brazil, United States soccer has had its moment in the forefront of American media coverage, especially with the US advancing of a group that included the eventual champion. However, one theme that dominated the narrative was Donovan not making the final 23-man roster that head coach Jurgen Klinsmann took to Brazil.
Who knows if Donovan could’ve helped the US go further – that question will never go away, but it’s useless to fog your brain with it at this point.
The sad thing about it, though, is that it was setting up for the perfect swan song.
Donovan and the US advance to the round of 16 – hell, maybe even the quarterfinals if we want to get crazy – and then the legend rides off into the sunset.
It didn’t happen and, for a time, it appeared that Donovan’s final note with the national team was an unceremonious axing. Thankfully, that wasn’t to be the case.
“I’m very pleased that we’re able to end this part of his journey in soccer with the national team,” said United States Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati. “In the right way, on the soccer field.”
Had Friday never happened, there was a small chance that the lasting memory of Donovan would be one of immense disappointment and that just would not have been right.
Statistically, he leads the national team with 57 goals in his 157 career appearances for the red, white and blue. What is infinitely more impressive is that he also holds the record for most assists with 58 – the next three players on the list (Cobi Jones, Claudio Reyna and Eddie Lewis) combine for 57.
Donovan is a facilitator as much as he is a scorer. He also holds the same records in MLS.
But beyond the numbers what makes Donovan unequivocal best player to come through the United States’ ranks is that he basically did for domestic soccer what Magic and Bird did for the NBA.
He made it relevant.
Donovan came to MLS in 2001 after failing to cut his teeth in the German Bundesliga with Bayer Leverkusen. The, at the time, five-year-old American league had just 12 teams (2 would cease operations before the following season), an average attendance that was under 14,000 and no consistent television contract.
Soccer in this country was already on its last leg from a last place finish in the 1998 World Cup.
Fast-forward to present day and the league is up to 19 teams with more additions right around the corner, average attendance has surpassed 18,000 fans and a joint TV contract with ESPN and Fox beginning in 2015 that is worth $75 million.
Donovan’s performances in the league and with the US during World Cup years were huge reasons for that boost. He was that captivating, which brought more fans to games and to TVs, which ultimately planted the idea in many a kid’s head that he could make a living playing soccer.
It was nice to see the outpour of praise and thanks Donovan received on Twitter in the days leading up to his USA finale. Whether it was young up-and-comers like DeAndre Yedlin and Mix Diskerud or more established players like Alejandro Bedoya and Jozy Altidore, all of them thanked Donovan for how he affected their careers in one way or another.
It has also been fun watching Donovan evolve just as much as the league has.
Debuting as a cocky Southern California kid with the stereotypical bleached-blonde hair who took his shirt off after each goal he scored, to the days where he was nicknamed “Landy-Cakes” because of his lack of mental toughness, to the time when he thanked his estranged-wife and blew a kiss to the camera after the country’s biggest World Cup moment and to now, where he just seems to be at peace with everything.
There have been many faces of Landon Donovan and each one of them never really fit the mold of a guy that anybody would expect of an athlete, let alone the best at his particular craft – he listens to Five for Fighting and is a fan of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry for God’s sake.
Idiosyncrasies aside, one thing that must be universally respected in regards to Donovan is that he maintains that he did things his way, with this retirement being the latest example.
Keep in mind, he’s just 32 and if his form with the Los Angeles Galaxy this season is any indication, he’s still a top player in this country. However, he feels that he has done enough and, really, who can make a compelling argument to the contrary?
Which leaves me with just one thing left to do.
Thank you, Landon Donovan.
For sticking with Major League Soccer when no one else did.
For scoring that 91st minute goal against Algeria.
For the countless amount of “dos-a-cero” games against Mexico that you were a part of.
For igniting a whole new generation of soccer players and fans.
For making me fall in love with this sport during the 2002 World Cup.
For saving soccer in America.
As pretty much has always been the case, you’ve won.