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. He also helped keep MLS afloat, buoying the league and with it, the future of the sport in the United States.
And now Donovan is calling it quits. A career of more than 350 club matches in MLS and 156 national team caps will come to an end after this season, and the king of modern American soccer will leave the sport to the next generation with the hope that they could do half as much for it as he did.
When Donovan came onto the scene, U.S. soccer was in crisis. They had been embarrassed at the 1998 World Cup, MLS was struggling and was lacking anything even approaching a star. And here they stand in 2014, fresh off of their third World Cup knockout stage appearance in four tournaments -- people are actually questioning whether the team went far enough. The viability of MLS is no longer in question either. The health of American soccer has never been better. Donovan wasn't just a part of it all; he touched every aspect.
Donovan was a part of the very first U.S. Soccer residency academy in 1998, the country's first attempt at full-time training like the rest of the world. It paid dividends right away, in large part because of Donovan, who won the Golden Ball as the U.S. finished fourth at the 1999 U-17 World Cup.
A year later, he was a part of the senior team. He hadn't yet become the center of the squad, but he was already on his way to stardom. He was brash, with bleach blond hair, and happy to tell anyone who would listen how good he was. And he was very, very good.
American soccer had longed for a star and they finally had one in Donovan. He was young, he had the personality and he spoke both English and Spanish, thanks to his time growing up playing soccer with Hispanic kids. But most importantly, he was great and his teams kept winning.
When he joined the San Jose Earthquakes in 2001, they won MLS Cup. They did it again in 2003. In between, Donovan starred for the U.S. at the 2002 World Cup. He scored two goals, including the backbreaker against Mexico in the round of 16, which he celebrated by running to the corner flag waving his shirt in the air. He was running and waving his way into the American consciousness.
Finally, American soccer was looking up again. MLS, which was on the verge of collapse in 2002, had begun to find its footing and the U.S. was the unquestioned king of CONCACAF. American soccer mattered, and Donovan mattered.
But MLS still struggled to grow. Even as Donovan won three consecutive U.S. Soccer Player of the Year awards and the U.S. won the 2005 Gold Cup, qualifying for the 2006 World Cup with a win over Mexico too, the league was stagnant. It was stable again, but stagnant, and was desperate for star power.
Donovan gave MLS a name. He gave it relevance. Even as other big names in the league retired or left for Europe, he stayed. Two failed stints with Bayer Leverkusen may have made him more hesitant to leave the comforts of home, but it wasn't as if he was devoid of offers. The bright lights were there, but he chose MLS. He chose his league. He chose America's league.
A move to the LA Galaxy helped the league still further, putting the country's biggest star on its biggest club team in one of its biggest markets. It was also home for Donovan, who had proven to be a complex and eccentric personality.
Donovan extolled the virtues of being at home and the importance of growing MLS. But others said he was scared to go to Europe. He had become a villain in Mexico, not just for regularly beating their beloved El Tri but for urinating on a bush in Jalisco Stadium. And then he starred in a Mexican lottery commercial. He was bored by the media at times, sometimes even surly, and other times far too open, airing dirty laundry that probably should not have been shared.
At 20, Donovan looked like the perfect, clean-cut and exciting face of American soccer that the country needed. He did prove to be exciting and the face of American soccer, maybe more marketable than anyone could have imagined in 2002, but he also proved to be polarizing. There were as many fans in MLS who hated him as there were those who loved him, but they all took notice of him. He was a true star, even if in a smaller-scale American soccer bubble, and that proved to be the first sign that soccer in the country was developing a true, dedicated and fanatic fan base.
Opinion on Donovan wavered after the 2006 World Cup, where the U.S. and Donovan had huge expectations laid upon them, only for them both to struggle and go out in the knockout stages. David Beckham joined the Galaxy in 2007 and butted heads with Donovan.
By 2009, Donovan had been knocked off his pedestal. Beckham's arrival in MLS didn't go as planned and Donovan was blamed for it. That MLS wasn't thriving was his fault, and the U.S. wasn't soaring either. Fans were looking for a new savior, and Clint Dempsey was providing them with an enticing option. A loan to Bayern Munich went horribly too. Donovan was now to blame for everything wrong with American soccer.
Donovan had ushered American soccer out of the depths of 1998, but it had since stagnated. And apparently that too was Donovan's fault. So in 2010, he took the sport to heights unseen in the country.
Now 28 years old and an old hand, he repaired his relationship with Beckham. The duo propelled the Galaxy to a Supporters' Shield win, then helped them reach the MLS Cup playoffs, giving MLS the Beckham-centric platform it yearned for. And in the middle of that season, Donovan also gave the U.S. its most memorable moment ever.
Minutes from going out of the World Cup, Donovan sprinted the length of the field. Tim Howard made the outlet pass, Jozy Altidore the cross and Dempsey the first shot, but with the ball sitting in the penalty box and an open goal, it was Donovan who got to it. He put his shot in the back of the net, leaving the U.S. in the round of 16 and boosting U.S. soccer to popularity it had never known before.
Donovan had done for the national team what had been expected of him nearly a decade ago. By 2011, he was also a MLS Cup winner again, with Beckham. He did it again in 2012, too. New teams were coming into MLS and a new record TV deal was in the offing.
"There is no doubt that Major League Soccer would not be what it is today without Landon Donovan," said MLS Commissioner Don Garber. "His decision to join MLS in 2001 was a statement to the entire soccer community, at the most crucial time in our history, that MLS could be a league of choice for the best American players. Landon is to MLS, what Michael Jordan was to the NBA, Wayne Gretzky was to the NHL and Tiger Woods was to the PGA Tour; a player who’s sporting accomplishments and popularity transformed their respective leagues and set a new standard for how the game would be played."
In Donovan's 16 years on the pitch, American soccer went from a failed national team with a failing domestic league, no stars and no relevance to a thriving national team, a growing domestic league and relevance it could not dreamed of. And it was, more than any other person, because of one star -- Donovan.
Donovan touched every part of the exploding game in this country. He was at the start of the first dedicated development program and in the youth national teams. He was a part of three World Cups and six Gold Cups. He was the face of MLS, staying and buoying a league seemingly destined to sink when every other big name jumped ship.
American soccer wasn't going to disappear without Donovan. Satellite TV and changing demographics would have kept the sport alive and, at least by 1998's modest expectations, it may even have been deemed a success without Donovan's contributions, but without the bleach blond, turned receding hairline kid from Redlands, Calif., it wouldn't be near what it is today.
Now he is ready to bid the game goodbye, with the sport bigger than anyone could have imagined. And it is because of him. As far as this generation is concerned, Donovan is American soccer.