There are more than enough lasting memories of Landon Donovan in a U.S. jersey. His four CONCACAF Gold Cup titles and record 57 international goals, including five across three World Cups, will resonate for decades. And the strikes against Algeria, Brazil and Mexico, among others, should remain heart-stopping fixtures in any highlight reel showcasing the history of the national team.
That’s the big picture. On a micro level, however, the aftertaste isn’t so sweet. The last of his 156 caps came back in early April, when a less-than-fully-fit Donovan played an indifferent half hour at the back end of a friendly against Mexico. Less than two months later, he was cut from the World Cup team. His fitness had improved, but coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s faith in Donovan had not.
The fallout was awkward, to say the least. Donovan took a couple of shots at Klinsmann during the World Cup and then again three weeks ago when he announced his impending retirement. He filmed commercials that poked a bit of good-natured fun at his predicament but which also felt like a form of comedic protest. They kept the story alive, even as the U.S. negotiated and then survived a brutal group stage in Brazil.
Klinsmann, meanwhile, could do little right in the eyes of those offended by his "snub" of the country’s most accomplished male player. Even as he stuck to the high road, Klinsmann was criticized for using the World Cup as a battleground for a clash of egos. He had to answer for a tweet sent by his teenage son. He was called out for failing to offer a timely tribute when Donovan revealed his retirement plans.
It was no way to conclude Donovan’s glittering and historic career. There are better memories that will linger, for sure, but even an amateur practicing his finishing alone in a park doesn’t want to head home on a missed shot. We attach symbolic importance to the coda. A satisfying farewell, one that shifts the focus toward a dozen years of achievement and away from a few months of angst, would leave everyone feeling a little bit better.
Credit is due, then, to the U.S. Soccer Federation, Klinsmann and Donovan for arranging one last run out in the red, white and blue. The parties announced Tuesday that Donovan will represent his country for the 157th and final time on Oct. 10, when the U.S. hosts Ecuador in Hartford.
Donovan’s October farewell was far from inevitable. His L.A. Galaxy will be fighting for playoff positioning this fall, and one easily could imagine a wounded player telling U.S. Soccer, "Thanks but no thanks. You guys turned your back on me, the Galaxy remained loyal, and I’m going to stick by them. I want to go out a champion and and I’ve got a game at FC Dallas on the 12th. Jurgen and I have nothing to say to each other. Find another way to sell tickets for your friendly."
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Nor is it hard to picture Klinsmann bristling at the thought of honoring a player he’s never really understood. It’s a distraction, a piece of the past, a half-hour on the field he might give to someone vying for a spot on next summer’s Gold Cup team. Klinsmann has big plans, and spending two days in Hartford answering questions about Donovan surely wasn’t part of them.
But that isn’t what happened. While the idea originated with the Federation and its president, Sunil Gulati, both Donovan and Klinsmann have embraced the opportunity. They each want to grow the game in the U.S., which requires a respect for its foundation. History provides context and meaning. Donovan has played a massive role in American soccer’s rise. His fingerprints are all over breakthroughs that not only led to increased legitimacy but also helped fuel the passion that was so prominent this summer, both in Brazil and at home. He’s a part of the trajectory upon which Klinsmann now intends to build.
"Playing for the U.S. national team has been a huge part of my career, and I'm ecstatic to have the opportunity to play for my country one last time," Donovan said. "I'm so grateful to all the fans that have supported me and this game will give me the chance to say thank you to all of them. I look forward to a great evening and I'm thankful to U.S. Soccer for making this happen."
Klinsmann didn’t have to chime in, but he did, writing on Twitter, "Awesome that all @ussoccer fans will have the chance to show appreciation for Landon Donovan's amazing #USMNT career on 10/10 in Hartford."
Wounds will heal, but history lingers. U.S. Soccer offered its most decorated player and its popular and driven coach the chance to show their pride in the right things, and they seized it. It will be an occasion worth celebrating. Now the national team’s all-time leading scorer can head home on a made shot.