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Landon Donovan reflects, embraces future options as iconic career ends

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CARSON, Calif. — Landon Donovan wants to go to college.

There are a lot of things the greatest player in U.S. men’s national team history would like to do once he retires from soccer at the end of this MLS season. One of them is to have the college experience that he never got by turning pro at 17. Psychology classes, sports business classes, foreign language classes. Donovan, 32, wants to try some new experiences.

“There are so many things,” he says during a wide-ranging interview on the field at the LA Galaxy’s StubHub Center. “I want to travel, to see all these different places that I haven’t been able to see. I’ve been to a lot of places, but I haven’t seen a lot of things from places. I want to spend time with my family. I want to just sit and have weeks at a time where I do nothing, but I can wake up and do whatever I want.”

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“I want to golf. I want to go to college and take classes. I want to hopefully do some commentating stuff, although somebody told me if I’m going to do commentating I just need to be myself, but hopefully more entertaining. So I’m going to work on that. And I think coaching kids would be fun. I have all these things I’ve always sort of wanted to do, and now I have the opportunity to just try them and see what resonates.”

For now, though, there are a few more games to play. Donovan has been on fire for the Galaxy, MLS’s hottest team, producing 10 goals and a career-high 18 assists. He just tied the MLS career regular-season assist record (with 135) and already holds the career regular-season goals record (144), which he broke earlier this season.

And on Oct. 10, in front of a crowd in East Hartford, Conn., that’s coming largely to see him, Donovan will play one final game for the national team, in a friendly against Ecuador. The occasion will be a chance for Donovan to share one last special moment on the field with U.S. fans after his 156 caps and his U.S. men’s record 57 goals and 58 assists.

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Not everyone thought this moment would come, including Donovan. His controversial cut from the U.S. World Cup team by coach Jurgen Klinsmann left scars that have not healed. When asked if he thinks the U.S. could have advanced further in the World Cup had he been in Brazil, Donovan smiles.

“I think there was a very tangible way I could have helped that team,” he says. “I believe in my abilities.”

The idea for Donovan to play in one last U.S. game came from U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, who has been close to Donovan since the player was a teenager.

“I thought about it for a while,” Donovan says. “Obviously, this summer didn’t leave the best taste in my mouth with everything that happened. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized this was something that I think would be really special, not only for me to feel and receive, but also my opportunity to say thank you. I’ve met so many people here in L.A. that have said, ‘We’ve booked our flight, we got our tickets, we’re going to Hartford to say goodbye to you.' For me that makes it special.”

It will be an emotional night in Connecticut—for fans, for players, for Donovan himself. But if you’re thinking that Donovan and Klinsmann will have a heartwarming hug-and-make-up session, you’re going to be disappointed.

Neither man will go out of his way to embarrass the other in a conscious way at the game—they’re too classy for that—but there’s still a palpable tension that Donovan does little to defuse. Just ask him a couple questions about it.

Did you speak to Klinsmann at all about this final game?

“I did not.”

Klinsmann told the media in May that his 17-year-old son, Jonathan, owed you “a huge apology” for his disrespectful tweet, the one that seemed to celebrate your being cut from the World Cup team. Did you ever receive an apology?

“I did not.” (According to a U.S. Soccer source, Klinsmann says his son sent Donovan an e-mail apology in May.)

Landon Donovan will play in one final match for the USA, when the Americans take on Ecuador on Oct. 10.

Landon Donovan will play in one final match for the USA, when the Americans take on Ecuador on Oct. 10.

"You never know when you might play in another final."

It’s something that Donovan has said often over the years, even as the finals piled up and he won more of them than he lost. He’d say the same thing even in his early 20s, when part of you would want to shake your head and say: "Seriously? Get a load of this guy acting like he might never make another MLS Cup final."

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But Donovan really believed it. Every time. Finals and trophies were not to be taken for granted. You never know what might come next in your career. For example, Michael Jackson could die and you might be center-stage for one of the most ridiculous press conferences in sports history —which happened on the day before a final, no less, the 2009 Confederations Cup final.

The record shows that Donovan has won five MLS Cup titles. A sixth, in the final game of his career, would put him alone at the top of the MLS all-time list. It’s a record that Donovan would cherish more than any of the other marks he’s set in his career.

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“I’m most proud of the relationships I’ve built and most proud of the fact I’ve been able to win,” Donovan says. “I think people forget that sometimes with athletes if you look at stats and the numbers, all these things. The one I’m most proud of is that I’ve won everywhere I’ve been. And that doesn’t mean I always play the best, doesn’t mean I always score or get assists or do things like that. But I’ve always thought I try to do things that help the team win.”

Donovan is fully aware that his career could end with a sixth MLS title on his home field, the field he’s sitting on right now, on Dec. 7. As a sports fan himself, he watched the way Derek Jeter finished up with the New York Yankees. Donovan’s first thought: “When he had his walk-off hit he set the bar really high, so I don’t know how I’m going to top that.”

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But he does know how to top that, actually. Jeter didn’t finish with a championship. The way the Galaxy have been lighting up MLS over the last three months, Donovan could.

“There’s nothing I would love more than to be on this field celebrating with my teammates in front of our fans at the end of the season,” he says. “But there’s a lot of work to be done until that can happen. If it doesn’t happen, that’s OK, but I promised my teammates that is my main goal.”

Donovan has helped his own cause by playing his best soccer of the year since announcing his retirement in early August. “It’s not a coincidence,” he says, noting the decision had been weighing on him mentally.

Over the years, Donovan has been one of the sports world’s most candid athletes when it comes to discussing his own battles with mental health, the kind that saw him take a three-month sabbatical from soccer in early 2013 and travel to Cambodia for a week. Told of a new FIFA study on soccer players and mental health, Donovan says the time for such investigations has come.

“The biggest thing that we can all do is be compassionate,” he says. “There are these phrases that go around in sports that are so prevalent, that 'he’s soft' or 'he’s weak mentally,' all these things. Of course sports is a macho, testosterone-driven activity. But we’re all human, and so just like there are gay athletes in sports, just like there are athletes from different races and ethnicities, of course there are athletes that have mental issues, just like everyone else can have mental issues in society.”

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"The pursuit of happiness" may sound like a trite phrase sometimes, but for Donovan it really has been a guiding principle for his career choices, even if they sometimes disappointed U.S. soccer fans who wanted to see him try to tap his full potential in European soccer.

Donovan knows there were groans when he returned from Germany’s Bayer Leverkusen to MLS (twice) early in his career and Bayern Munich later on. Eventually he would test the waters of England in two separate (and successful) loans at Everton. But Donovan always returned home to California, where he was born and bred, where he was (and is) at his happiest.

He doesn’t worry about disappointing anyone.

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“Sometimes sports fans think they know what’s best for the athletes,” he says. “I’ve never abided by that. I don’t try to do things to please other people who are not involved in my life that intimately. I certainly do things to please those who are close to me. But I’ve tried to live that way. So I understand why people haven’t agreed with some of the decisions that I’ve made. A lot of people probably wouldn’t have chosen the same decisions. But it was never malicious. I was never trying to do anything except make myself happy, so I could enjoy this game that I love to play.”

When you turn pro at 17, you have a lot of miles on your tires at 32. Soccer is a punishing sport, one that almost never stops worldwide. And so Donovan is an old 32, in the same way that Wayne Rooney is an old 28. But 32 is still 32. Is there any chance that Donovan might decide in a year or two that he wants to come out of retirement and play again?

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“I’ll never say never,” he says, smiling. “But I feel like once I’m gone that’s going to be it for me. I’ll still get my fill of soccer. I’ll play pickup games or play indoor or just hang out and go kick a ball around. Those moments where I get excited and think, ‘Oh, I can play again,’ I’ll be aware enough to say, ‘OK, let’s remember all the bad moments where you were thinking, ‘Gosh, I can’t wait to retire.’ So I’m aware of all that. I understand it. You never know, but at this time I would say it’s unlikely.”

So keep an eye out. One of these days, when he’s on break from a class, say at UCLA or USC, Donovan will join one of those student pickup games on campus, and he’ll be playing just for the fun of it, with a smile on his face, and one of us mortals can play him a pass and say we connected in a game with the greatest player in the history of the U.S. men’s national team. It’s a nice thought, a happy thought, for everyone involved.

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