On Friday, Landon Donovan will play his final game for the United States Men’s National Team. It will be his 157th and final appearance for a country to whom he brought the beautiful game as it had never been seen previously.
He will reportedly wear the captain’s armband, something which has seemed to be one with his bicep for the better part of the last decade, and play about half an hour in a friendly against Ecuador.
For many in the United States, this occasion is entirely unprecedented. For all intents and purposes, Donovan has been the catalyst for interest in soccer since his national team debut in 2000, and he has epitomized the stereotypically American value of hard work yielding concrete results.
Without Landon Donovan, it is difficult to say where American soccer would be today, for his reach extends far beyond any 23-man side assembled for the stars and stripes.
A quick background: A product of the renowned IMG Academy in Florida, Landon Donovan signed with Bayer Leverkusen the same year as his national team debut and officially stayed with the Bundesliga club for five years, with offseason loans to the San Jose Earthquakes of the MLS keeping him busy in between seasons. A raw player at first, as they all are in the beginning, Donovan came to embrace his major strengths while learning to effectively play all over the pitch.
He found a permanent home in 2005 with the LA Galaxy back in the United States, and he spent his spare time playing with Everton in the Premier League, honing his craft and gaining the affection of an upstart fanbase. Everton embraced him in a way which was unfamiliar for most previous American players abroad, and Donovan became a useful cog in limited action over two seasons for a typically serviceable team.
MLS Cups and Supporters’ Shields came and went for Donovan, as did David Beckham, and accolades fell toward him seemingly around each turn. He is the all-time leader in goals for the MLS, which is an impressive stat despite how relatively young the league is, and was featured in the MLS Best XI side six times. His club work stands alone as representative of the kind of player he could be.
It was with the USMNT, however, that he solidified his reputation as the best American soccer player ever. Whenever the United States needed a goal, Donovan was there. His pace and elusiveness never seemed to fade with age, and his touch was, to put it in the highest complimentary terms, as close to European as any American has ever gotten.
It was he who pushed the United States to four CONCACAF Gold Cup trophies in six tries, and it was he who scored a magnificent goal on the counterattack, with an excellent assist from Charlie Davies, to put the US up 2-0 against Brazil, a goal which could’ve (should’ve) won the Confederations Cup in 2009.
The counterattack, it ought to be noted, is where Donovan did his most memorable work. Anybody who was watching the 2010 FIFA World Cup group stage match against Algeria can certainly attest to that. Perhaps more than any other moment, his game-winning rebound in extra time defined American soccer up to that point.
It was all so quintessentially American, so of course it had to come from Donovan, who seemed to will the ball into the back of the net through sheer determination. Many who watched that goal live can attest to a feeling they had when the ball left Tim Howard’s hands that the United States would win, not because we always believe we will win, though we do, but rather because Donovan was the focal point of attack and the man who seemed to see everything before anybody else.
A spat with Jurgen Klinsmann led to the greatest exclusion of Landon Donovan’s vaunted career, missing out on the final 23-man squad for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Nobody can ever know what impact, in any, he would have had, but there lay within him a calmness which may very well have been the necessary ingredient in leveling the score against Belgium. To put it another way, and with all due respect, nobody is going to write an epitaph canonizing Chris Wondolowski as a paragon of American soccer when he retires.
Another notable captain, Derek Jeter of baseball’s New York Yankees, also just retired. He was the kind of player for whom everything just seemed to go perfectly. Indeed, in his final home game at Yankee Stadium, he had the game-winning hit, the last in an incredible litany of memorable moments. Like Jeter, Donovan is transcendent, a player who garners the respect of even devout American soccer detractors.
Against Ecuador, perhaps one more indelible play will come from the legs which have carried the United States out of dark irrelevance and toward a promising future, one which never could have existed without Landon Donovan.