Anybody remember the last time that this country has talked about or been so interested in soccer?
In the same light that New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter became the face of baseball and Michael Jordan became the face of the NBA in the 90’s, a 5-foot-8 midfielder from southern California became the face of not just his league, but his sport in the United States.
When L.A. Galaxy midfielder Landon Donovan announced his retirement after the 2014 season on Thursday, it marked the end of a big chapter not just in Major League Soccer, but in American soccer as well. The game will say goodbye to one of its first homegrown greats (with hopefully many more to come) who decided to help build the sport in America rather than take his game and entire career back overseas.
— Don Garber (@thesoccerdon) August 7, 2014
Donovan had several chances to go back overseas permanently after starting his career with the German club Bayer Leverkusen, and maybe should have considering how good of a player he was in his prime, and even when he was coming up.
When he was just 19, he went to the San Jose Earthquakes in 2001 and turned that team around instantly, winning two MLS Cups (2001, 2003) in his four years in San Jose. In his first four years in the MLS with San Jose, he scored 32 goals with 29 assists along with 10 goals and six assists in the playoffs. He became the league’s first true great player and became the face of the league at a time when the MLS almost began to fall apart.
With the league nearing financial catastrophe in 2001 and with the Quakes being forced to move to Houston (becoming the Houston Dynamo) in 2005 due to the failure to get a soccer-specific stadium in San Jose, Donovan stayed.
Even when the L.A. Galaxy brought soccer’s biggest star David Beckham to the States, Donovan still remained as the face of soccer in the country, having Beckham help him lead the Galaxy to back-to-back MLS Cups (2011, 2012).
While Donovan definitely helped build the MLS and made a name for himself in that league in the same essence that the greats of the NFL, MLB and the NBA did.
But where Donovan made his name in the country is what he did with the USMNT.
In the 2002 World Cup, Donovan helped the USMNT to the quarterfinals and their best finish for the first time since 1930, rebounding from the nightmare they suffered in the 1998 World Cup where they lost all three group stage matches, scoring just one goal.
It was Donovan again in 2010 that helped the U.S. believe when he scored his game-winning goal against Algeria, pushing the Americans into the knockout stages for the first time since 2002. It was that game-winner that put Donovan at the top. Donovan ended his international career scoring the most goals (57) and assists (58) than any player in the history of U.S. soccer.
Then in a loan to the English Everton in 2009-10, Donovan instantly became one of the team’s best players in just 13 games, proving that he can hang with the big boys across the pond.
But Donovan still returned to the Galaxy and continued to build the MLS. He knew that the USMNT would not be good enough without a strong MLS to supply its talent.
Donovan gave the fans one last glimpse of his greatness in Wednesday’s MLS All-Star game against Bayern Munich, fighting through two Bayern Munich defenders to score the game-winning goal in typical, quiet, last-minute fashion, as the MLS beat the defending German champions 2-1 in Portland, in front of over 21,000 fans.
Donovan’s near-sudden retirement now puts the MLS in a new situation: how do you pay tribute to a player who not only made the league relevant, but used your league to make the sport relevant, thus propelling your league on its way to the same level as that of the NHL and MLB?
The MLS should give Donovan a farewell tour of sort as it begins its second half of the season Friday night, paying tribute to the player who quietly became a true pioneer for American soccer. The league needed Donovan a lot more than Donovan needed the league.
American soccer fans can only hope that there will be another great American soccer player that will come through the ranks in the future in a similar way that LeBron James continued to carry the league after Jordan, however its possibly safe to say that the league has some very large cleats to fill going forward.
Donovan is unquestionably the greatest American soccer player of all-time, American born and raised, doing it all in his country’s sport, for his country’s sport, for his country.