CARSON, Calif. — When some superstars—like, say, Michael Jordan—win a title, they appear at the postgame press conference wearing a $5,000 custom suit. Landon Donovan didn’t do that here on Sunday after his final game, the LA Galaxy’s 2-1 victory over the New England, which gave him a record sixth MLS Cup title to go with his MLS all-time records in goals and assists.
No, the greatest player in MLS and U.S. men’s history sat up there on the podium shirtless, with a white towel draped over his shoulders, looking more like a proud but spent middleweight boxer who’d just won a title belt after a brutal nine-month training period. He looked like someone who had given everything he had.
There’s a common criticism leveled at Donovan that he could have done more with his remarkable talent, that he could have broken new ground for U.S. players in European club soccer by becoming the first true American superstar in the world’s most popular sport. Donovan didn’t end up doing that: He did it his way, choosing to play the majority of his career in MLS, his own country’s developing domestic league, where he showed his quality time and again, albeit on a stage that wasn’t the UEFA Champions League.
But Bruce Arena, Donovan’s coach with the Galaxy and for the U.S. at two World Cups, had a different spin on that old Donovan cliché on Sunday.
Acknowledging that Donovan’s drive to play had declined in recent years, Arena argued that Donovan got nearly everything out of what his body—and, most importantly, his mind—would allow.
“Landon has done the real shift in the game,” Arena said. “He’s done it all. He’s got very little left to give. So I’m so happy that he’s made this decision [to retire at 32]. He’s able to go out as a winner. And don’t we all wish to be able to leave what we do like the way Landon left today as a winner? He ends his career … as arguably the greatest player in the history of the U.S. Soccer national team program, and in the league the all-time leading goal-scorer, assists, championships. What more can you say? Can you write that any better, that script?”
“So I’m happy for him. He’s spent. He’s done. And my hat is off to him.”
The Donovan tributes came from all sides after the final whistle, after he’d leaned back and closed his eyes and thanked the heavens above, after the long embraces with dozens of teammates, family and well-wishers, after he’d followed John Elway and Joe DiMaggio and Bill Russell as era-defining superstars who won a championship in their final game.
From New England coach Jay Heaps: “He’s done it the right way, all the way.”
From Galaxy teammate Robbie Keane: “It was just a great honor to play these four years with him. I’m delighted for him more than anybody to go out on a high because he deserves it.”
It’s time for Donovan to go now, not far from the height of his powers, still winning championships, still making a difference, and not tracing a sad decline until we read one year that he’d been cut, and we shook our heads and said, “Remember when…?”
When asked whether his decision felt right at this time, Donovan cracked a deadpan joke: “Well, I was going to wait until the end, but I’ve decided to come back…”
And then he got more serious. “It does,” he said. “It feels great. As much excitement as there is about the game, there’s excitement that tomorrow I don’t have to train anymore. Tomorrow I don’t have to do a lot of the things that were the not-fun parts of the job. Now along with that I don’t get experiences like today anymore, either. There’s a lot of good, there’s going to be some bad. But it feels good to go out this way.”
Donovan didn’t produce a signature moment in the final that will live long in the memory bank. But there was a perfect symbolism in the versatility he showed during the game. Back when he was the U.S. coach, Arena once said that Donovan would be his best player at whatever position he played. And on Sunday he moved Donovan to three different spots, from left midfield to center forward to right midfield.
The changes made a difference. After the second-half switch, the Galaxy went ahead, 1-0, on a goal scored by Gyasi Zardes, who was more effective after trading places with Donovan.
Donovan moved back into midfield in extra-time, allowing Alan Gordon to come in up top, giving the Galaxy another new look. Soon came Keane’s title-winning goal.
“I’ve always tried to be a winner,” said Donovan, “and I think that’s one thing that people don’t maybe appreciate enough, the guys who are real winners. To me that’s just as important as all the individual stuff. Don’t get me wrong, goals are great, assists are great, awards are great. But soccer is a unique game where you can’t as easily influence a game.”
“In basketball, there are five guys on the court,” he went on. “In football, there’s a quarterback who can always influence a game. In soccer, to be able to influence a game and consistently be a winner is very difficult … Today I didn’t have a great game, as far as technically and that stuff. But I felt like I was doing things to help. Other guys didn’t have great games, but they did things to help win.”
Donovan, thank god, never was a merciless machine of a player. He’s a human being, one who took time off from the game at one point to rediscover himself, one who found that while winning matters, winning while being a real person mattered more. When asked about the emotions he felt after the game, Donovan talked at length about what his teammates had endured this season, guys who’ve lost parents and, in AJ DeLaGarza’s case, a recently-born child.
“When you finish a year like this, all of that sort of comes out,” Donovan said. “And when you couple that with having been a part of these guys’ lives for so many years, a lot of them have been here five, six, seven, eight years. It’s family. So when you can celebrate it that way, it’s so pure. That’s the absolute beauty of sports.”
The absolute beauty of sports. How many athletes would deliver a line so thoughtful in that situation?
By the time he was finished talking, the white towel had fallen off Donovan’s shoulders. He looked naked up there, a fitting scene for a player—for a person—who revealed so much of his inner thoughts over the years. There was no artifice here. Next to Donovan on the podium table was Arena’s bottle of Champagne. Like Donovan the athlete, it was empty. Spent.
And yet the shirtless man next to it—Donovan the person—suddenly appeared reborn.