EAST HARTFORD, Conn. -- Landon Donovan’s 9th-minute header, his only shot on goal during a 40-minute run at Rentschler Field, was saved. He hit the post in the 25th after running onto a slick heel pass from Jozy Altidore and pushed a 38th-minute chance -- which resulted from one of his trademark, counterattacking runs through midfield followed by another feed from Altidore -- wide left.
“After watching Jeter a few weeks back, I thought that would be the perfect way to score a goal. But unfortunately it didn’t happen,” Donovan joked during a halftime interview with ESPN.
“I tried man! I tried to do what he always does for me,” Altidore told SI.com following Friday’s 1-1 draw with Ecuador. “You saw right away what it’s like playing with Landon. He’s just such a good player. He has a smell for the game that other Americans don’t have. We’re going to miss him.”
A 58th goal would have been a storybook way to cap Donovan’s 157th and final appearance with the U.S. national team. But the evening was no less storybook without one. Friday’s testimonial, a tribute Donovan was reluctant to embrace in the dark days following his exclusion from the World Cup team, wound up becoming something “beyond my wildest dreams for sure,” he said.
From the time he joined his teammates at their hotel on Friday afternoon to when he climbed the capo stand and led the American Outlaws in a raucous chorus of "I Believe," Friday’s swansong was filled with small moments and scenes that served their purpose. It allowed Donovan to end his historic national team career in the right way, perhaps washing away some of the sour aftertaste of his World Cup absence and leaving behind the memory of 15 years of superlative service.
“To feel that kind of love and support is incredible. I’ve put a lot into this game over many years and tonight feels like it was all worth it. I’m very grateful,” he said.
Asked by SI.com which moment might linger the longest, Donovan chose the postgame video shown on the stadium scoreboard. He watched standing off to the side, his arms folded across his chest, while his teammates remained several yards away in the center circle, giving him time to take it all in before embracing him. There were cheers as Donovan rescued the 2010 World Cup team with his game-winner against Algeria and, for the retiring player, tears as well.
“The best for me was watching the video and letting myself go a little bit because I’ve been so focused on all the other stuff that was going on," he said. "There’s just a lot, you know. There’s a lot of moments and memories and my life has been shaped through this sport and I’m so blessed.”
Donovan’s ‘This Is Your Life’ evening kicked off before kick-off, as U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati presented him with a wooden frame featuring a jersey-shaped collage assembled from pieces of each of the 19 U.S. shirts he’s worn since his senior debut in 2000. The frame was redwood, the state tree of Donovan’s California home. The backing was oak, the state tree of Connecticut. Inscribed upon it were the names of each of the 147 U.S. players with whom he shared the field.
The Americans’ energy matched the occasion. The U.S., with Donovan and Altidore together up front, immediately put Ecuador on the defensive. First, Donovan drew cheers with a deft 2nd-minute pass to DeAndre Yedlin. Three minutes later, Donovan was involved in Mix Diskerud’s goal. Midfielder Joe Gyau, who left with a knee injury later in the first half, started the play with a ball down the left sideline that Donovan collected and curled toward the far post. Altidore misplayed the cross but regained possession in time to pass it back to Yedlin. The Seattle Sounders winger then fed Diskerud, who inherited Donovan’s No. 10 jersey at the World Cup, for a clinical finish.
“It was a surreal feeling,” Donovan said of the game’s opening minutes. “I’m not overly comfortable with that kind of attention on me, so it was a battle with myself to just try to enjoy it and appreciate it while balancing still playing a game … I looked up after the game started and there had been a few plays and I said, ‘Please, don’t be that long yet.’ And it was two minutes in and I said, ‘Thank you.’ Then it flew by fast.”
He hit the right post in the 25th and fell to the grass, putting his hands to his head in frustration. The game plan was for Donovan to play 30 minutes – the L.A. Galaxy face FC Dallas on Sunday – but the half-hour mark came and went and Donovan remained on the field.
Jurgen Klinsmann was rooting for him.
“It was exciting to see Landon in this game playing full of energy. I think he really enjoyed it,” said the manager, whose relationship with Donovan has been subject to considerable scrutiny. “That’s why I left him longer than was planned, because I had the feeling he’d get another chance and maybe put one in. He got another chance but just missed it by a little.”
Said Donovan, “I give Jurgen credit for letting me stay a few more minutes and I think it was perfect the way it worked out.”
When it was time to finally leave in the 41st minute, Donovan passed his captain’s armband to Altidore and made way for Joe Corona, the 24-year-old playmaker who also was one of the final World Cup cuts. U.S. players took turns hugging Donovan as he exited and several Ecuadorians angled for a handshake. Donovan and Klinsmann shared a moment on the sideline. It was an image many thought they might never see. The coach said he offered his congratulations and gratitude.
“He told me he should’ve taken me to Brazil … just kidding,” Donovan said to laughter in the postgame press conference.
Altidore returned the armband as the players made their way the locker room at halftime.
“It’s his, man. It’s his,” Altidore said. “He built a lot of what you see today. He’s been instrumental in that. He deserves it. We all know how special today was … It’s not like we’re best friends or anything. But what he represents, the moments you watched as a little kid, the things he did, to share this moment was just unbelievable. It was indescribable.”
Ecuador pulled even on a bouncing, 88th-minute bomb from West Ham United’s Enner Valencia and secured a deserved draw. That did not tarnish the evening. Donovan made his way around the field, shaking hands with fans and stopping near the benches to embrace his mother, sister, girlfriend and many more family and friends. Then it was on to the supporters behind the East goal, where he led the cheer that became the soundtrack to the World Cup he missed.
“It was a little out of character for me, but sometimes you’ve got to let go and enjoy it. Those people, the supporters clubs and American Outlaws, they’re the blood of this team and this sport,” Donovan said.
And he is part of the foundation. So many moments at Rentschler Field reminded us that a World Cup snub doesn’t change that.