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Landon Donovan's soccer legacy towers over his flaws

By Brian Straus
August 08, 2014

Go ahead and poke holes in Landon Donovan’s “perfect” moment. It isn’t tough to find them if that’s what you’re looking for.

Start with the fact that Wednesday’s MLS All-Star Game was a glorified friendly with parties attached. Donovan’s 70th-minute goal, which lifted the league select team to a 2-1 victory over Bayern Munich, counted for nothing -- at least officially. And it came against a visitor with no interest in high-stakes competition. Bayern’s top players made only token appearances and its coach had a conniption over a couple of unfriendly tackles.

Yet Donovan, who has scored enough to know, called his goal “perfect” during his Thursday news conference in California, where he confirmed his impending retirement. Meaning hinges on priorities, and there were multiple layers to his game-winning strike, which, by the way, was no simple finish. With Donovan, it’s rarely simple.

Planet Futbol
Landon Donovan's impact reaches well beyond the playing field

He knew, for example, that Diego Valeri’s long, high cross might have represented a final chance to score under the spotlight. Unless the L.A. Galaxy (9-4-6) contest the MLS Cup final in three months, the All-Star Game will be the last time Donovan plays with a nation or two (and perhaps more) watching. It may have been meaningless technically, but people were paying attention and to some -- even if it was only the players representing MLS in Portland -- the result genuinely mattered. There was poignancy added to the pressure.

Then there’s the backstory with Bayern, where Donovan played on loan following the 2008 MLS season. Critics regard the German juggernaut’s decision to pass on a contract offer as a significant professional and personal failure. It also marked the start of the deterioration in his relationship with Jurgen Klinsmann, then the Bayern coach and now the U.S. national team manager who excluded Donovan from this summer's World Cup.

“If everybody only knew what was going on,” he said Thursday when asked about the quick turnaround between his goal and bombshell of an announcement. If only, indeed. An assessment of Donovan always has required a deeper dive.

Go ahead and find the holes in his career. So many have. He failed in Germany, they say, and never had the guts to stay in England. He was lousy at the 2006 World Cup. When younger (remember, he turned pro at 17), he could be petulant or even a prima donna. As he aged, he could be overly sensitive or introspective. He yearned for a life with balance. We're told athletes should be fighters, not thinkers. They should remember how lucky they are. Just shut up and play. Then, in 2013, he went to Cambodia instead of Honduras. He lacked ambition. He wasted his talent. There was ample support for Klinsmann’s controversial decision to leave Donovan behind.

“If everybody only knew what was going on.”

Has the best, most decorated player in any other competitive soccer nation faced as many doubters as Donovan? Has anyone of his stature required such passionate defense, or experienced the sort of “suffering” to which tearful Galaxy coach Bruce Arena alluded in an interview with TWC SportsNet? Thursday’s rush to lionize the all-time leading scorer in both MLS and U.S.  national team history, a winner of 12 major trophies for club and country, was appropriate. But it also seemed like an organic effort to mute any past or potential criticism -- to drown out the “what ifs?” It was part tribute, part debate.

Arena, who led the U.S. at two World Cups and coached the likes of Claudio Reyna, Kasey Keller and Brian McBride, said he had a “hard time thinking that there’s another American player that’s accomplished as much as Landon.”

MLS commissioner Don Garber said, “There is no doubt [the league] would not be what it is today without Landon Donovan … Landon is to MLS, what Michael Jordan was to the NBA, Wayne Gretzky was to the NHL and Tiger Woods was to the PGA Tour -- a player who’s sporting accomplishments and popularity transformed their respective leagues and set a new standard for how the game would be played.”

The boost Donovan’s goal offered MLS on Wednesday at Providence Park compares to the massive lift he gave the league over the past 14 years. Whatever U.S. soccer lost because of his European failure/avoidance was repaid many times over by his efforts at home. MLS isn’t the Premier League or La Liga, but it also isn’t easy. The travel is taxing, the play is physical and the demands on a player like Donovan, who’s a focal point for the public and every opposing coach, are real. The other team’s defense may not always be world class, but neither are your teammates. For around a dozen years, Donovan has been a linchpin on the pitch and a patient spokesman off it. And he’s been a leader within the MLS Players Union.

He may not have succeeded long-term in England (he certainly did in the short-term at Everton) or Germany. Other Americans have. But Donovan managed a feat none of them neared. He became something close to a household name in a country still skeptical about soccer. He was the first American male to transcend the sport. It’s a remarkable achievement, required a lot of work and may have shortened Donovan’s career. He’s ending it at 32 years of age, and it’s an ending that’s been coming for two years.

"I thought it was much more important to be here than be lost in the shuffle of a European league,” Donovan said Thursday.

Maybe he stayed home to make a difference or perhaps he made a difference because he stayed home. It doesn’t matter at this point. He did what felt right to him and now, from Carson and Columbus to Jeonju and Pretoria, U.S. soccer boasts tradition and a collective memory. There are places, matches and moments that conjure images and feelings and represent milestones -- or benchmarks to be surpassed. Fans who believed the U.S. would advance from the World Cup’s Group of Death or who are certain their favorite players can succeed in the sport’s top leagues stand upon that foundation. It wouldn’t exist without Donovan, who in refusing to become everyone’s ideal player became the player American soccer needed.

The sport started as a local pastime. Clubs represented neighborhoods or demographic groups within neighborhoods and as a result, generations of supporters found a gathering place with meaning. Ask fans of a team that will never win the Champions League or Premier League (and that’s the vast majority of them) why they continue to spend time and money despite scant hope of a big-time trophy, and they’ll tell you about roots and camaraderie with their fellow supporters. Connections create strength.

In the U.S., those connections are tenuous. MLS clubs are young. They face fierce competition from more entrenched sports. Matches are played thousands of miles apart, limiting traveling support. The national team enjoys primacy. The game is global now. Many fans prefer foreign clubs and leagues to the ones nearby.

Donovan was a throwback. He kept it local. He valued family, preferred to be home and typically played better when he was. He wanted to be liked by those he worked with and he was the furthest thing from a mercenary (he forfeited millions by retiring). Donovan’s heart was in his front yard. He had pride in his league and club, perhaps more than they’d earned, and chose to focus his efforts there. That’s something for which no one should ever apologize. He owed his colleagues and the fans inside the stadium an honest effort, nothing more. Disappointment in his humanity or career choices reflects only on the disappointed.

When asked Thursday about his legacy, Donovan said, "I hope that my teammates will say I was a good teammate. I hope that my coaches will say they enjoyed working with me and having me on their team. I hope that the fans enjoyed watching and could see how much I gave to this sport over the last 16 years. And that’s really it. Because at the end of the day the goals and the assists and the accolades and that stuff, in the end they don’t mean a whole lot to me. But the relationships matter.”

How might American soccer prosper if more players, investors, fans and sponsors were so motivated by that search for community and connection? How many more future players, investors, fan and sponsors might be inspired by seeing the likes of Donovan up close? His career reflects the possibilities.

That’s how soccer nations are built, and Donovan has helped pave the way. The only real disappointment associated with his historic run should be the amount of time we spent looking for the holes.

Gallery: Classic photos of Landon Donovan

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