Columbus Crew head coach Gregg Berhalter, a former U.S. soccer teammate of Landon Donovan's, honored Donovan in a touching ceremony at storied Crew Stadium.
Gregg Berhalter wanted Landon Donovan honored, and he wanted him honored the right way.
Most coaches presiding over a team on the playoff bubble, one that’s just started to pull itself out of a three-month slump, would slam the door on a staffer inquiring about the contents of a stadium video presentation. Berhalter, the first-year Columbus coach who’s developing a reputation for acute attention to detail, felt differently.
He asked to listen to the music selected to accompany the Crew’s video salute to Donovan and found it wanting. He desired a more moving piece, one that would reflect the gravitas of the occasion. His former teammate’s final visit to Columbus was a big deal and Berhalter wanted Saturday’s ceremony -- which was his idea to begin with -- to set the standard for a player who did the same.
The manager also paid close attention to the gift given by the club. There were multiple conversations with multiple members of the Crew’s front office before they decided on a frame featuring a photo, a list of Donovan’s senior appearances at Crew Stadium and a piece of the net into which he scored his final international goal. It came last September in the 2-0 win over Mexico that sealed the U.S. national team’s spot at the World Cup, and it punctuated one of his many memorable appearances in Central Ohio.
That mattered to Berhalter, who now is trying to build the Crew into a club whose cache might someday rival the L.A. Galaxy’s. Columbus doesn’t yet have the star power, either on its roster or above its outgoing crest, but it does have the stadium. Crew Stadium is pretty historic for a building that went up only 15 years ago, and it means as much to soccer’s U.S. growth as the player who made it a home away from home.
“It’s almost a perfect storm because he’s been a teammate of mine and Frankie [Hejduk’s] and Josh [Wolff’s] for a long time. We got first crack at this, and we want to honor him in the right way. This is his first game in an away stadium since he announced his retirement,” Berhalter told SI.com before the ceremony. “Landon might not be that comfortable with it, but it’s the right thing to do.”
Indeed, Donovan wasn’t entirely comfortable with it, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t appreciative and moved. The all-time leading scorer in U.S. and MLS history -- still only 32 but a pro for nearly half his life -- revealed on Aug. 7 that he’d had his fill. He did so publicly for his own peace of mind. The announcement was a pledge that might help him refocus and revel in the final few months of his final season. It was not designed to set up a farewell tour. Donovan has shied from the spotlight over the past couple of weeks and during the buildup to Saturday’s game, he agreed only to a short video interview, requested by Columbus, during which he discussed his Crew Stadium memories.
His favorites were two legendary “Dos a Ceros." There was the 2001 triumph over Mexico, in which a 19-year-old Donovan remained on the bench, that established a long-sought and effective home-field advantage for the national team.
“Some of us had played in big games around the world and experienced that [atmosphere], but we'd never experienced that at home. So to have that was really incredible,” he said.
Then there was last September’s qualifier, which capped a summer during which Donovan recaptured his international form.
In between, there were two more wins over Mexico, a tying goal in the 2001 MLS Cup final (his first title with San Jose), the 2005 All-Star win over Fulham -- the league’s first over a European opponent -- and more. Donovan played for the U-17 national team at Crew Stadium. He scored five MLS playoff goals there and captained his country in a World Cup qualifier.
Beyond StubHub Center, there is no field where American soccer’s first mainstream male made more of a mark. And there arguably is no field that symbolizes the ascent of American soccer more than Crew Stadium’s. It was the national team’s first fortress, and it set the stage for the construction boom that has fueled MLS’s rapid growth.
Berhalter nailed it. His presentation poignantly celebrated that intersection and Donovan -- perhaps reluctant to distract himself or his team -- was moved to tears. He applauded the crowd, rested his head on Berhalter’s shoulder at one point, hugged a bowing Hejduk and then sprinted back toward his teammates, hoping to get his game on. L.A. coach Bruce Arena joked a couple hours later, after the Crew administered a 4-1 beating, that he “blame[d] the entire game on the pregame ceremonies.” He was kidding. Paced by midfielders Justin Meram and Tony Tchani and playmaker Federico Higuaín, Columbus was ruthless and unbeatable, at least for one night.
But the ceremony did leave an impression.
“It was incredible. I don’t know how many of you were here when the stadium was first built, but this became the home of soccer for many, many years,” Donovan said afterward. “I can’t imagine there’s another stadium I’ve played in more throughout the league and [I have] a lot of very, very good memories here. So, I was very appreciative of them doing that. They certainly didn’t have to and I give them a lot of credit and a lot of respect, to Gregg and the whole Crew organization.”
Donovan still has trips to Colorado, Montreal, San Jose, Dallas and Seattle on the regular season schedule. The Earthquakes jump out as the team most likely to honor Donovan in similar fashion. But whether anyone at the club has Berhalter’s zeal and sense of history, or whether San Jose fans have stronger feelings about Donovan’s contribution to two titles or his 2005 departure, remains unknown. When the Galaxy honor Donovan, it’ll be about what he meant to L.A. When the Crew honored him Saturday, it was about how a player and a stadium changed the game.
“There’s no question he’s been the face of U.S. soccer for the last decade. He was driving this thing …. There was obviously the  Women’s World Cup and Mia [Hamm], and Landon was the next face. He’s a guy that a lot of young kids could identify with. The soccer movement in America can identify with him,” Berhalter said. “When you tie Crew Stadium into it, this is the place where we play our toughest game. The most important qualifier every qualifying stage is here. This is a place with deep-rooted soccer ties and people flock from all over to see that game.”
Crew Stadium’s past, and Crew chairman Anthony Precourt’s vision for the future, helped entice Berhalter to Columbus.
“We can take it from what it is now and we can make it even better. We can tie even closer to the community,” Berhalter said.
That’s what Donovan and Crew Stadium have in common. The player has had his detractors, but it’s hard to argue that his day-in, day-out presence on North American fields and in front of North American fans didn’t have a lasting impact on the sport. He brought fans out to either cheer or jeer. He bet on MLS. Several Columbus players went as far as to suggest that Donovan helped save the league.
“He's really brought the level of MLS and U.S. soccer to somewhere it's never been before. For a long time, he was doing it single-handedly,” Crew captain Michael Parkhurst said.
“This league probably would have folded if he might have gone to Europe. He kept it, and it's a testament to him how big the league's become,” Meram said.
Naturally, there are fans who will have more nuanced opinions. A group in Crew Stadium’s supporters’ section, the Nordecke, unfurled a banner featuring Jurgen Klinsmann’s face toward the end of Saturday’s match, apparently mocking Donovan for his absence from the 2014 World Cup. Others will bristle at the thought of honoring a member of the opposition. There are those who might denigrate Crew Stadium as well. It’s still relatively bare bones, even as Precourt tries to dress it up a bit. It’s located in a small asphalt wasteland.
But Saturday night’s carefully crafted ceremony seemed wholly appropriate. It was a reminder that, for as young as U.S. soccer still feels sometimes, it’s starting to develop some history. There have been men and moments of meaning. No matter how one feels about Donovan or the Crew, that’s a development worth a coach’s attention.