As Landon Donovan wraps up his international career, it is our duty as lovers of the American game to put on our retrospective monocles and sort out the man’s career, one YouTube clip at a time.
For me, Donovan’s greatest contributions didn’t happen on the field. His biggest impact wasn’t his goals, his field vision, or his longevity, but the way he continuously changed how American fans talked about the game. All at once, he represented the progress of MLS, the U.S. national team, and the American game, itself. What we thought about Landon was what we thought about the sport as a whole, and our place in it.
He was one of the young players I took particular interest before the 2002 World Cup. They were my age. Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley were what my friends and I could have been. They made a personal connection. That Donovan did so with a flair that debunked the hard-working American stereotype meant he was the man.
Then, for me, it all went south.
When critics dubbed Donovan “Landycakes”, I was right there in the firing line, only with an extended clip. When second trip to Leverkusen ended after nine games and the characterization went from “hope” to “failure,” I bought in. He was supposed to be the first kid from my block to make it to college. Instead, he was a freshman crying into his ramen noodles. Everything about ourselves that we projected onto Donovan — insecurity about our roles roles as fans, nine-to-five professionals, and family members — blew up in our faces.
Whether we admit it or not, American soccer fans are hyper-sensitive about things like perception, especially when it comes to what the cool kids in Europe think about our guys. A lot of that has died down over the years, but in 2005? Forget it. Everything was Landon. His opportunity was our opportunity, and he took it for granted. All that time we spent waiting for him to “break” on a bigger stage was wasted. He was just another guy, and I resented him for it.
From that point on, Donovan could do no right by me. Every goal came with a “Yeah, but.” I bought into the myth that Europe was always the only place for an elite player. No matter management, style or atmosphere, Europe is Europe. San Jose and Los Angeles were not.
I was a young fool.
My stance on Donovan began to soften as I grew older and the “MLS vs. Europe” conversation meant less to me, though there still was a time when I didn’t like him. I saw him as a whiny, self-righteous hypocrite. Everything that came out of his mouth annoyed me. I thought he was the face of U.S. Soccer because Clint Dempsey was too “urban” for the orange slice and mini-van crowd. Had Donovan retired after 2012, I’d have felt that way forever.
Then something changed, again. In the same way I stopped caring about how outsiders saw our game, Donovan stopped caring what people like me thought. At 30 years old, he began talking like a player who had grown tired, a state that didn’t hit home with me until his sabbatical.
The initial reaction to Donovan’s time away from the game was somewhat predictable. When you’re blessed with a gift to do things that millions dream of — particularly if you can get rich while doing so — and then choose not to maximize it, you’re seen as something of a spoiled child. The move cost him his spot with the national team and drew some passive-aggression from Jurgen Klinsmann, but it only made me like him more.
When he returned, Donovan was a different man. He made it clear to everyone that being a professional athlete was no longer his top priority. Being a happy person was.
Finally, after a decade of feeling like Landon had let me down, I could appreciate him again. Entering my fourth decade of life, I had my own shift in priorities. I cared less about career and expectations and began looking for fulfillment. The only resume I cared about was the one I kept to myself. I felt like I was in the same place as Landon, fighting off the notion of “supposed to” that we place on each other.
Seems like Cambodia was the right place to go, and to the credit of fans across the country, the view of Donovan’s sabbatical has changed. People get it now. Life is bigger than goals against Algeria or the Houston Dynamo. A player’s career isn’t his entire life. It’s just the part that we see the most.
Now, at 32, in a season where he’s playing as well as ever, Donovan is calling it a night. He’s doing it on his own terms, because he’s ready. While I never want to see a player in good form walk away (looking at you, Thierry), Donovan is once again changing the way we see the game. I have nothing but the utmost respect for him.
Now go tell him to unblock me on Twitter.