Landon Donovan was too smart to be great

Landon Donovan was too smart to be great.

That’s not even an insult. Landon Donovan was (is) very, very, very good at kicking soccerballs. He’s the best player MLS or the United States ever produced. But he wasn’t great.

Greatness demands a kind of single-minded determination. When rationality says to go home and lie down and drape yourself in ice packs, greatness stupidly, stubbornly keeps training. Think of Cristiano Ronaldo, whose meticulousness extends to every eyebrow follicle. Or Michael Jordan, who failed to stay retired a bunch of times and is slowly being eaten away by restlessness because the competition isn’t there anymore. Alexander the Great drank himself to death after there was nothing left to conquer. There’s a hunger in greats that eats everything in its path, including, eventually, the host. Donovan doesn’t have that. His brain was always too furtive, too conflicted.

Compare Donovan to the dude people compare him to most. Clint Dempsey is all hot nostril breath and a chip on his shoulder the size of Texas. Landon Donovan inspired the parody Twitter account Existential Donovan. Neither player is a great. There’s a pretty big gulf between the best American players and starting for a team that could conceivably win the UEFA Champions League.

And again, Donovan was (is) amazing. He’s got the most goals and most assists in U.S. national team history. He’s got the most goals and most assists in MLS history. He’s won MLS Cups. He’s really fucking good. Just not great.

And again, Donovan is smart. He’s probably smarter than you. Long-time coach Bruce Arena says Donovan could have gone to Harvard if he wanted. He didn’t. He decided to kick soccerballs competitively instead.

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But Donovan was too thoughtful for his own good. Even early in his career, the difficult shots were never the problem. It was when he got a few breaths to stop and think about what he’d do, that he’d undermine himself.

Frequently, in the last few years of his career, he’d talk about staying “present” and “in the moment”, especially during penalty kicks. That’s some zen shit. This guy did some soul searching, and he did a lot of it.

After he retires, he wants to go to college, he told Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl. Donovan mentions wanting to revisit places he went as a player, except going back as a civilian so he can leave the hotel room and wade into the culture of the place.

When he took four months off to deal with burnout and — let’s call it what he still won’t — depression, Donovan went to Cambodia. That’s not like a trip to Paris. It’s not even a Phuket, Thailand. Cambodia is a place you go when you’re inquisitive about how humans can be quite so shitty to other humans, and how we recover from that, if ever.

“We have a sort of stigma that being in a difficult mental place is not acceptable,” he said once he got back. “It’s a little peculiar to me, that whole idea, that if someone’s physically hurt, we’re OK with letting them take the time they need to come back, but if someone’s in a difficult time mentally, we’re not OK with letting them take the time they need to come back.”

That’s not the quote of a great athlete. That comes from someone who reads Rilke. That comes from someone who’s done some meditating, who thinks about personal peace, from a guy who will make decisions that may hurt temporarily because they’re healthy in the long run. Things like spurn a career in Europe — where he would have ended up a better and richer player — because he knows he’ll be happier and more whole near family.

He airs his emotional shit. Donovan fairly openly begrudged his mostly-absent father in his early career. Then he spoke about learning to understand and forgive his dad through his own divorce. Lately, he pushes skin cancer prevention because his father is a survivor. And he let you, a stranger, watch this maturation in real time.

“Sometimes I’m a little too honest and too candid,” he said once, “but I try to give people insight into how I’m feeling.”

Donovan seemed as curious about the life of a soccer star as he was interested in being the soccer star in the first place.

On Friday, Donovan will play for the United States one last time. Then he’ll retire at the end of the LA Galaxy season, at 32. He’ll go down as the best this country ever produced, but not a great. That’s okay. That’s fine.

“I was never trying to do anything except make myself happy,” Donovan told Wahl, “so I could enjoy this game that I love to play.”

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