It was a testimonial, except that it wasn’t a testimonial, because U.S. Soccer doesn’t do testimonials, see? So please don’t call it one.
Not to take anything away from a fully deserved tribute, but did anyone else find the whole scene around Landon Donovan’s national team curtain call slightly strange? Donovan was soaking up his farewell moment, and yet he barely knew some teammates, who were mostly far younger and hardly his contemporaries. Donovan reprised as the old man. How strange.
And whatever it was that unfolded emotionally Friday in East Hartford, Conn., it happened under the watch of a manager whose relationship with the man is all kinds of FUBAR.
It was all lifted from the Theater of the Bizarre and yet somehow 100 percent a perfect fit. If the entire scene was a bit odd, well, so was Donovan’s entire career.
And wonderfully so. Because we can debate about whether this kid out of Ontario, Calif., was the best “this” or “that” a rising soccer nation has ever produced, but there’s no debating this point: He is easily this land’s most polarizing, mercurial and intriguing soccer superstar.
He’s damn talented, too, which should go without saying, only you have to say so because too many soccer nincompoops will argue the point, their pea-brained judgment clouded by wild misfires of personal umbrage, their ability to witness Donovan’s supreme blend of speed, talent and wily recognition now hopelessly corrupted. See, whereas Mia Hamm was always a reluctant soccer superstar, someone who felt her way through a conflicted relationship with fame, nobody ever doubted that she was a genuine soccer “superstar.” Opinion on Donovan was never so neatly unified. Even if he had a shy streak, Donovan wore his celebrity status more comfortably, but the arc of his stardom was drawn more erratic. A bit all over the place, really.
It was always about his career choices, of course. He was the Ben Affleck of soccer in lots of eyes. Or maybe it’s the other way around; Ben Affleck was the Landon Donovan of movies in terms of questionable career choices from a talented figure.
I remember being at Crew Stadium not long after its 1999 opening when I first started hearing about Donovan. That was about the time a 17-year-old kid landed in Leverkusen, a small city on Germany’s western reaches, about the size of a medium-sized U.S. suburb (current population: 160,000). In retrospect, sending a kid to live in, say, Bradenton, Fla., must have been hard enough on someone so close to his family, but to ship him away to a small town in a cold, foreign land? A kid from sunny SoCal, no less.
Is it really so shocking that Donovan didn’t like it? He was homesick. Go figure.
Only that wasn’t good enough for that less secure set of U.S. Soccer supporters, those who demanded validation through their sporting heroes. Really, think about it: Who is the weak one here?
Somehow, if you toiled away anonymously in England’s third tier, you were more of a man than Donovan, who was off and running toward five MLS championships, all-time scoring marks for club and country, more individual honors than anyone could possibly dream up, and more World Cup goals than Cristiano Ronaldo. (Seriously. Look it up.)
But everyone knows that story. I certainly did, sometimes feeling like a book of memoirs as a career soccer journalist would need to be titled “Defending Donovan.” I always said, every human being deserves the chance to make themselves happy, period. How often I wrote this line: Donovan doesn’t owe us anything.
He was clearly a success, and however he arrived at that point should have been sufficient. Only it wasn’t. Not for too many people, and that was always the central point of Donovan division – the big nit to pick that made him such an intriguing and polarizing figure.
Seriously, “Landycakes?” Really? Whoever first coined that one needs a good talking to.
The argument against Donovan eventually reduces down to “unfulfilled potential,” which is really just the foreign soccer snob’s way of saying, “he didn’t do it where the game really matters.” It’s silly, but there’s the argument.
Is it better to be Donovan, swimming in domestic success, or Jozy Altidore, splashing about for the life-preserver that will keep his career abroad from drowning? But never mind the sensible logic of undisputed success. Donovan is soft, right?
Never mind the enormous talent. Never mind the heavy load of being soccer’s perennial domestic headliner, how he always shrugged his shoulders and said, “Sure, why not?” to the endless fusillade of requests and responsibilities as U.S. Soccer poster boy. And never mind that he always comported himself professionally, kept out of trouble, and that he did, in fact, demonstrate his talent in the ballyhooed Premier League.
Even Friday during his emotional send-off, I was still hearing it: “The guy was soft; he didn’t want to play in Europe.” It gives me tired-head, so now I wave it off and order another beer.
I wonder if the Donovan bashers will give the man this much, at least: I wonder if they’ll admit that this peerless U.S. figure of unmatched international success did, at least, always give us so much to talk about?
What are we going to argue about now in the soccer-friendly pubs and in the breaks between matches on some random Saturday? Who else is going to be such a massive figure as to make Bruce Arena, the cynical Tin Man of American soccer, weep (as the Galaxy manager did in a recent interview)?
Over the weekend, Arena drove it all home when he said Donovan has “maybe seven or eight matches left in his career.” There’s still a final chapter to be written as Donovan and the Galaxy hunt a third MLS Cup crown in four years. But certain legacies already are solidly locked into place.
Truly, there will never be a more provocative, polarizing figure in the U.S. game.