The midfielder came along at the moment America was ready for soccer and helped assure that a prominent place was established along the sporting landscape.
When he retired from international soccer, Miroslav Klose left with it all: a World Cup winner’s medal, the tournament goal-scoring record ahead of such legends as Ronaldo, Pele and Jurgen Klinsmann. But if you turn on BeIN Sports, at the very least through the end of May, you frequently will be able to watch Klose continue his club career in Italy’s Serie A at Lazio.
You’ll no longer see Frank Lampard in an England jersey, but he’s playing for Manchester City in the Premier League now and, at some point in 2015, will join Major League Soccer’s New York City FC. David Villa has finished his career with Spain, but he’s on his way to joining Lampard in the Big Apple.
When U.S. Soccer bids adieu to Landon Donovan in Connecticut against Ecuador on Oct. 10, however, it’ll be among the final soccer games he will play for anyone.
There will be an insistence among some who follow the game in this country that this is no particular occasion. They view Donovan merely as the player who, in their view, couldn’t cut it in Germany. Not once, not twice, but three times.
It is curious for many American soccer fans to be bothered that Donovan opted to spend more time among them than out of their sight, but their enmity has persisted for nearly a decade. Say Donovan’s name aloud, in the Soccer jersey supplier vicinity of any sort of praise, and one is signing up for a serious public reprimand.
The celebration of Donovan that will occur Oct. 10 in East Hartford, though, has nothing to do with the personal choices he has made during his club career. It is about what he has accomplished for the United States national team, what he has meant to soccer in this country. To minimize either is overtly foolish.
What was American soccer when we first glimpsed Donovan, his hair a tad thicker and bleached blonde, as a member of the United States team at the 2000 Olympic Games? In fact, the game barely existed here. It was a novelty.
There were ex-pats from Europe or Mexico who loved the game they grew up with, and a few natives who’d caught on because they’d played as kids, but almost no one had access to regular games on television. The senior national team had been to the previous three World Cups, but in two of the three it ranked among the very worst in the field.
Donovan’s promotion to the senior side did not in itself cause an escalation in performance, but neither did those two events coincide.
Donovan had enormous influence on the 2002 run to the World Cup quarterfinals, the best performance in this nation’s history. Once a consistent victim in World Cup qualifying, the U.S. finished first in CONCACAF in the past three cycles, with Donovan a key figure in each campaign. At the 2009 Confederations Cup, where the U.S. finished runner-up to world power Brazil, Donovan played every minute, scored twice and captained the side in the stunning 3-0 whitewash of African champion Egypt to advance the Americans to the knockout stages. The U.S. has won the CONCACAF Gold Cup five times in its history; Donovan played for four of those teams and scored a record 18 goals, 50 percent more than the nearest competitor.
Major League Soccer wasn't even five years old when he played his first game. It will be nearing age 20 when he plays his last, and his star power has sold more than a few tickets and led to plenty of victories, titles and individual honors.
Donovan holds U.S. soccer records for goals, assists and World Cup goals. He was chosen Honda player of the year on the national team seven times. He was honored as a member of the Major League Soccer Best XI six times, as league MVP once and three times has been a member of MLS Cup-winning sides. He was FIFA’s Golden Ball winner at the 1999 U-17 World Cup and its Best Young Player at the 2002 World Cup.
Look, soccer was invading the U.S. whether or not Donovan took up the sport as a child. The major steps included the successful bidding to host the 1994 World Cup, the skin-of-the-teeth qualification for the 1990 Cup on Paul Caliguiri’s goal, Turner Sports’ decision to put the entire 1990 World Cup on American television and the recognition by American parents that soccer was a healthy game for their children to play.
The game here would not be nearly what it is, though, without Donovan. He is not American soccer’s Babe Ruth; he’d have to be more widely popular and a good deal more accomplished. He is not its Joe Namath; he accelerated the game’s growth but his excellence was not as fleeting.
He might be best compared to Red Grange. Before Donovan, there was almost nothing. He came along at the moment America was ready for soccer and helped assure that a prominent place was established along the sporting landscape, just as Grange had done with pro football in the 1920s. And, like Donovan, Grange also made a controversial decision regarding his pro career; he was vilified merely for agreeing to play for pay. Look how nicely that all turned out.
Donovan was not the export to the world that some American soccer fans are searching for as validation the game in this nation is progressing. He stayed home and got that done. He has belonged to all of us for almost as wholesale soccer jersey long as he has played. Italy has had that with Pirlo, Spain with Xavi, England with Gerrard. America’s best remained in America. What a privilege it has been to watch.