Landon Donovan was U.S. Soccer's first true superstar. And he was my first U.S. Soccer superstar.
He was a teenage punk with bleached blonde hair who thought he was the greatest. I was a teenage punk who thought he was the greatest and probably would have had bleached blonde hair if my mom would have let me. The connection was immediate.
Donovan was supposed to be our first great player. Alexi Lalas, John Harkes, Eric Wynalda, Eddie Pope and Claudio Reyna were all wonderful, but they weren't Michael Jordan. They weren't even Greg Maddux or Brett Favre. They were good, but I never argued with my friends before a pick-up game that my team had to be Ajax so I could be John O'Brien. Hell, we barely knew what Ajax was, such was the nature of soccer in America back then.
Donovan was expected to change that. He was going to be our star, and it didn't take long for him to find his way into my brooding little heart. In 2001, he won the MLS Cup, beating my L.A. Galaxy for the title and leaving me stunned. I never hated him the way I did the rest of that San Jose Earthquakes team, and was happy to see him holding a trophy. The Galaxy were my team, but Donovan was my guy. He was our guy.
A year later, I was waking up in the middle of the night to watch the World Cup. Consider that: a 13-year-old skipping out on sleep. But this was the world's biggest sporting event. This was the United States competing with the rest of the planet. This was Donovan's coming out party.
The U.S. wasn't supposed to do anything at the tournament. After all, they finished dead last four years before and they were starting two kids in their opener against World Cup dark horses Portugal. But then O'Brien scored to put the U.S. in front. And Donovan's cross then took a deflection and went in. Finally, Brian McBride found the back of the net and the Americans were ahead 3-0. I was running around the house jumping and screaming, too happy and excited to understand the world around me. You know, the world where it was 3 a.m., the neighbors could probably hear me and my parents were questioning why they bothered having children.
Donovan seemed almost the same way. He was too young and dumb to realize he was on the biggest stage, being watched by hundreds of millions around the world and playing one of the most talented teams at the World Cup. He ran at player after player, tried daring passes and made runs no one had any business making. If there was any concern about stage fright, he put them to rest really quickly, seemingly too oblivious to realize that he should be scared. And with every goal he jumped and screamed too.
The most important player in U.S. soccer history
No player has had a bigger influence on American soccer than Landon Donovan. He wasn't just the face of the sport for more than a decade, he was a part of all of the national team's best and most important moments.
In the round of 16, it was more of the same. Donovan still hadn't realized he should be nervous, and had no problem telling people how good he was. It was something I was only too happy to parrot to my friends who thought soccer was stupid, let alone waking up in the middle of the night to watch it.
"The U.S. was great," I told them. "Landon Donovan is one of the best players in the world," I swore.
Well, the U.S. wasn't great and Donovan wasn't one of the best players in the world, but that didn't stop Donovan from believing it and it didn't stop me from saying it. I was 13 years old and didn't care if I was actually right or not. I believed I was right, and that was as good as being right.
When Donovan scored the second goal against Mexico to seal a win and advance to the quarterfinals, it was a dream come true. My guy had done it. Our guy had done it. We had done it.
The future looked so bright. Donovan kept scoring, the sport kept growing and come 2006, the hype train was at full speed.
I was a high school senior, only occasionally attending classes. There were other, more important things to do, like parties and cheap beer, plus there was this really cute girl. But there was still the World Cup, and Donovan was on the cover of every magazine and the talk of every sports show.
This is when we were going to make the jump, Landon and I.
Instead, the U.S. crashed out of the World Cup. Donovan had a terrible tournament, while the girl didn't like the way I talked to other girls. So much for that glorious summer. I had nothing, and there wasn't a critic in America who didn't take a swing at Donovan. It was too easy to kick the guy who was already down.
Donovan wandered through the next four years. Nothing he could do would atone for 2006, at least not until the next World Cup. He tried to find himself and re-establish himself, which wasn't too different than me in college. I jumped between majors, girlfriends and generally, tried to figure out what the hell I was doing.
As time ticked away against Algeria, it looked like we were set for disappointment. Donovan wouldn't redeem himself, the Americans wouldn't redeem themselves and the promise of 2002 was never going to come to fruition. We would never feel that excitement again. It just wasn't going to happen until ...
... yeah. Until Landon did that.
There he was, running around and yelling like it was 2002. And there I was, running around and yelling like it was 2002. His teammates mobbed him, leaving him at the bottom of a dog pile. My friends ended up on top of me too. He cried and I cried.
For the first time in more than 60 years, the U.S. had won their World Cup group. Donovan had taken us to the heights he was supposed to. It wasn't because he did something so remarkable, dribbling through a defense or hitting a 30-yard screamer, but simply because he kept running and was in the right place at the right time. And with that, he put the U.S. on top.
It was a lesson that gets hammered home in your 20s. You can't do everything and make everything happen for yourself. You can be talented and you can work hard, but eventually, the world has to give you a break. Something has to go your way. You have to be in the right place at the right time.
When Jurgen Klinsmann left Donovan off of the 2014 World Cup roster, it made complete sense. Donovan hadn't been playing that well, hadn't been a consistent member of the team and was aging, but it hurt. My guy had been omitted. He was deemed not good enough. He didn't get his one last run.
Donovan was too old. And that meant I was old, too.
I'm only 25, so I'm not really old, but when players you grew up watching start to retire, it's maybe the first time you start to realize your age. You realize that you are out-living careers, which is frightening; as a kid, sports and your favorite players are supposed to be eternal.
Leaving Donovan off of the World Cup roster wasn't just a shot at Donovan, it was a shot at me. It was a shot at my entire generation.
I was, and still am, a part of that first generation of modern American soccer fans. We are the first ones who grew up with the game, a league and a competitive national team. Donovan was the face of that game, that league and that national team. He was the face for all of us -- the constant.
On Friday, Donovan will bid farewell to the team that made him a star as a teenage brat, left him buried four years later as a man who failed a country and then made good on it all, taking it to untold heights in South Africa. He will also say goodbye to us, the generation that grew up with him, and he with us.
Donovan's retirement is a marker for this first generation of soccer fans. It is the point where we realize that we're not the same snot-nosed teenagers anymore. We are, theoretically, adults who no longer number in the dozens or hundreds. We number in the thousands and the thousands of us will be on hand in a dedicated supporters' section on Friday to bid farewell to our legend, but we won't do it alone. We will do it alongside teenagers and kids looking for their next star because there isn't just one generation anymore. There are several. We have grown up, and U.S. Soccer has too, walking into a new era of maturity and growth.
Donovan was my guy. He was our guy, but he is moving on. We won't forget Donovan, the boy, and later man, of our youth -- of our generation. We'll never forget. You never forget the punk that had you yelling and screaming at 3 a.m.