It’s a measure of Landon Donovan, the person, that for all his achievements on the soccer field, I’ll remember his playing career even more for his humanity than for his exploits between the white lines.
That’s no small thing. Donovan, 32, who announced on Thursday he’ll retire at the end of the 2014 MLS season, will do so as the greatest U.S. men’s national team player in history—the all-time U.S. leader in international goals (57) and assists (58), to say nothing of goosebump-inducing moments in the Red, White and Blue.
The numbers matter, of course, as a way of measuring a player’s impact over the course of a career. Donovan scored five goals in three World Cups. He’s also MLS’s all-time leading goal-scorer, and he has won a record-tying five MLS Cup championships.
But to reduce Donovan’s production to statistics is largely to miss the point. Here is a player, a person, who forged a visceral human connection with U.S. soccer fans both on and off the field—even with those who felt he didn’t tap his full potential—and that bond is infinitely more powerful than cold, clinical numbers.
Donovan has always had a flair for the dramatic, for the kind of goal that brought fans to their feet involuntarily, with a guttural whoop and the jolt of adrenaline that makes this sport so pure. Which of his strikes was your favorite? Most would say his injury-time rebound against Algeria that saved the U.S. in World Cup 2010 and vaulted soccer to a new level of interest in America.
But there are other options, too. Donovan’s whooshing counterattack goal against Brazil in the 2009 Confederations Cup final might be the finest team goal in U.S. men’s history. His streaking header finish in the World Cup 2002 round of 16 was the final nail in the coffin of archrival Mexico and just one reason he earned the nickname of The Mexecutioner. I was there in the Los Angeles Coliseum on October 25, 2000, when Donovan made his U.S. senior debut and scored against (who else?) Mexico. And it was apt that Donovan would score against Mexico again (dos a cero!) in the game last fall when the U.S. clinched its spot in World Cup 2014.
Life and history don’t always play out in the perfect way, and U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann dropped Donovan from the 2014 World Cup squad. But that doesn’t take away from what Donovan did achieve for the U.S., nor does it diminish the human connection Donovan built with his fans.
And it’s that humanity that sticks out even more about Donovan than his outsized soccer talent in my mind. From the day I first interviewed a 16-year-old Donovan in February 1999, he was different from any other athlete I have covered in 18 years as a journalist. Interviews with Donovan always featured a candor about himself that was by turns refreshing, disarming, revealing and not always even in Donovan’s best interests. It was as though Donovan couldn’t bear to hide what was going on in his mind, that if he did that he was somehow lacking in honesty.
That led to some courageous stands: His willingness to say that athletes face mental health challenges just like everyone else as he took a three-month sabbatical from soccer in early 2013. His willingness to say, early in his career, that he needed to be personally happy to play at his best, and that meant staying in MLS. His willingness to say that he almost retired after his brutal performance in World Cup 2006. His willingness to criticize a global superstar like David Beckham for his lack of leadership on the LA Galaxy in 2008—and then to patch things up with Beckham and win two MLS titles together.
These stands weren’t always popular with everyone who follows U.S. soccer, but you had to respect that this was how Donovan really felt. If revealing humanity involves the constant pursuit of excellence while acknowledging that none of us is perfect, then Donovan has been as human as they come in American sports, much less soccer. And for all of those things we should thank him.
GALLERY: Classic photos of Donovan