BY KIERAN RUANE
On October 10, 40 minutes into an international friendly between the U.S. and Ecuador, Landon Donovan stepped off the pitch for the final time in a United States jersey.
15 years, 156 international appearances, and 57 goals tell the tale of the most iconic American soccer career to date. The effect that Landon Donovan has had on soccer in the United States over the course of his illustrious career is something to marvel at. His career, one that saw a 17-year-old kid from Redlands, California eventually become an American sports icon.
In 1999, when Donovan made his first international appearance for the stars and stripes at the U-17 level, American soccer was on the downslope. Hot off a disappointing performance at the 1998 FIFA World Cup, TV ratings, fan attendance, and quality of play at both the national and club level were at an all-time low. Soccer fans across the country ridiculed the nation’s flagship league, MLS, and the national team, which was mostly made up of MLS players, for not being up to par with the rest of the world. In 2000, when Donovan was called up from the U-17 squad to play with the big boys at the senior level, he became just the spark the U.S. needed to get soccer off the ground, stateside.
When a United States team led by Donovan and co. qualified for the FIFA World Cup just two short years later in 2002, not much was expected of them. However when the team reached the quarterfinals, before being knocked out by eventual runners up Germany, a jolt of support and popularity for the American side surged throughout the country. For his role of guiding the U.S. to their success, Donovan was named “Best Young Player” of the tournament; and from that point forward, he became the poster boy of American soccer.
He didn’t just settle for that though. Even before his appearance at the 2002 World Cup, Donovan was a key contributor to the U.S. side that won the 2002 CONCACAF Gold Cup, an international tournament in which the U.S. hosted that year. Donovan and the U.S. went on to win eventually three more Gold cups in 2005, 2007, and 2013 respectively; all while appearing in two more World Cups in 2006 and 2010, to add onto his 2002 success.
It is hard to forget that while Donovan was excelling at the international level, he was also excelling at the club level in America. As he rose to fame during and after the ’02 World Cup, Donovan played his trade in MLS with the San Jose Earthquakes while on loan from the prestigious German soccer club, Bayer Leverkusen. After guiding the Earthquakes to two MLS Cup championships in 2001 and 2003, and after a short stint back in Germany with Leverkusen, Donovan made his move to MLS permanent, in 2005, when he joined the LA Galaxy.
His success with the Galaxy over his tenure to date is unlike anything MLS has seen. Now, nine years and three MLS Cups later, and with his official retirement on the horizon, one more opportunity will be granted for the face of American soccer of the last 15 years to forever solidify his success. Donovan and the Galaxy will look to win the franchise’s fifth league championship at the 2014 MLS Cup Playoffs.
It is difficult for a player of any caliber to produce the kind of enduring consistency that Donovan had at both the international and club level. However, it seems as though not even he could keep the engine running forever, as the recent turn in Donovan’s international career came at the expense of him competing at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, which by the way he handled as only he could do, with dignity and grace.
While he may not be finished playing just yet, it is already hard to imagine what life will be like without Donovan. What he has done for soccer in the United States is something that will never be forgotten. Whether it was stepping into a struggling national team and turning it into a legitimate world competitor or taking a nearly failing MLS by the horns and turning it into the league it is today, Donovan will forever be labeled the United States soccer’s savior. A bid of respect, congratulations, and farewell to an American legend is in order: goodbye, Landon.