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May 23, 2014

The end of Donovan's U.S. career? A retrospective

Comparing Landon Donovan's international soccer résumé to that of any other American player is an exercise in contrast.

It doesn't matter whose USMNT record one places in opposition. It will always fall short of the Ontario, California, native's exploits wearing the red, white and blue.

Donovan doesn't just cast a shadow on the history of the United States team over the course of the past 14 years, he eclipses it. Through three World Cups, four qualifying cycles, countless encounters with bitter rival Mexico and 156 caps, Donovan has scored more goals (57), provided more assists (58) and simply carried more American teams than any other player his country has produced.

- McIntyre: Klinsmann better know what he's doing

- Carlisle: Donovan's omission is a stunner

With the surprising news that Donovan won't be going to Brazil as part of the World Cup squad, it seems appropriate to look back on an international career that could very well be over pending an official announcement of retirement from the player himself.

Where to start? A chronological recounting of Donovan's time with the national team would rightly begin with his effervescent breakaway goal against Mexico in October 2000. Back then, a fresh-faced SoCal kid with blazing speed and a stellar youth résumé was still an unknown quantity to all but the most ardent American soccer fan.

Watching the goal, it's difficult to believe that it is the same Donovan we know, not just because of the hair he no longer has but also because the time that has passed since changed so much for both him and the sport.

Donovan has made scoring against Mexico a habit in the past decade-plus, with six of his international goals coming against El Tri. The most momentous of that half-dozen was the second goal in a 2-0 round of 16 victory at the 2002 World Cup.

That tournament was also Donovan's coming-out party. Just 20 at the time, he emerged from his role as a support player, brought along to harry teams with speedy wing play, on a team that featured more celebrated stars like Claudio Reyna, John O'Brien and Brian McBride.

It was the last time Donovan wasn't the biggest name in every USMNT lineup.

Over the intervening years, Donovan became a mainstay for U.S. coaches Bruce Arena and then for Bob Bradley. His influence went well beyond goals. Donovan's fitness and speed made him a strong two-way player, freeing up others to push forward from the back. On the attacking end, Donovan's eye for a pass, ability to set up teammates and the attention he drew from defenders were almost as important to American fortunes as the goals he scored.

Although it ultimately came in a loss, Donovan's inch-perfect pass that led to Charlie Davies' goal at Estadio Azteca in a 2009 World Cup qualifier stands out as an example of his impact as a playmaker.

His goal against Brazil in the 2009 Confederations Cup final is good enough to stand as a textbook example of counterattacking soccer for players and coaches the world over.

Perhaps it's best to move now to Donovan's shining moment, the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, when he not only pulled the strings on a devastating, full-field counterattack against Algeria in the defining final group-stage match but also slotted home the rebound off Clint Dempsey's shot.

When soccer fans, whether deeply invested or casual, think of Donovan, it's that goal they will conjure. Alongside that memory sits the reaction of fans across the country in bars and at watch parties, the sort of transcendent moment -- ready-made for YouTube -- that gave us the closest thing we've ever had to a singular national expression of soccer passion.

That goal was the penultimate that Donovan would score in the World Cup (his last was a penalty in the knockout-round exit against Ghana), although we hardly knew it at the time. Instead, as the clock ticked toward full time and U.S. elimination, his race upfield and subsequent finish appeared to be a fulfillment of his destiny.

Donovan was already an all-time American great but was dogged by his flat performance at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, when the U.S. finished at the bottom of its group despite high expectations.

In 2010, Donovan put to rest any notion that he wasn't capable of carrying the load as the team's best player, first with his emphatic, snatching-of-control goal against Slovenia via a thunderous effort from a tight angle, and then with that winner versus Algeria.

The likely final act of Donovan's time with the USMNT was marked by questions of commitment and burnout. He talked openly about losing his passion for the game as early as 2012, presaging his ill-timed sabbatical the next year.

More an achingly honest admission of his mental fragility than an attempt to trade on an assumption of his place in the team, Donovan's absence from crucial World Cup qualifiers against Honduras and Costa Rica can nevertheless be seen to have sowed the seeds for Klinsmann's decision on Thursday.

He did return and still had a few great moments left in him, including a brilliant performance at the 2013 Gold Cup. The stage seemed too small in retrospect, but Donovan made the tournament his by collecting five goals to go with seven assists and displaying a verve unthinkable just a few months beforehand.

It was again a pass that perfectly summed up his importance, as a one-touch layoff led to a streaking Brek Shea netting the lone goal vs. Costa Rica in the final group stage match.

Whatever shine Donovan's introspective period took off his standing, at least fans have that Gold Cup to clutch, plus what might very well be his final international goal against Mexico in Columbus last year, as the final memories of his USMNT career.

It's impossible to fairly encapsulate Donovan's national team career in this space. There are simply too many moments to highlight them all, and even a full review would fail to put his contribution in proper context.

A count of his teammates over the course of his career covers three whole generations of American players and, for 14 years, Donovan's presence in the U.S. lineup was both a given and a source of comfort for fans.

Whatever uncertainty was swirling around him, he was always there to provide the promise of a spectacular moment. He did not always deliver, but when he did, no one could compare.