Donovan's retirement plan affects L.A.'s fans deeply
CARSON, Calif. -- Walking around StubHub Center prior to the L.A. Galaxy's 2-2 draw with the San Jose Earthquakes on Friday, the pregame festivities looked normal enough.
The Angel City Brigade took up its usual position on the northwest side of the stadium. The L.A. Riot Squad was in its normal spot just around the corner. There were coolers aplenty to quench the thirst of those on hand.
But with Landon Donovan having announced the previous day that he'll retire at the end of the season, no amount of beer could wash away the sadness that many fans felt. Clearly, Donovan's long goodbye won't be nearly long enough.
"I'm going to miss him," said Alexis Rogel, a 31-year-old who works in retail.
"I've been watching him since he started with San Jose. I actually hated him, because he scored on us and killed us in [the 2001] MLS Cup. But now he moved with us, and I started cheering him. Ever since he's been with the Galaxy, he's been my favorite player."
If one looked closely, you could almost see the various stages of grief all at once. There was anger, depression and even a bit of bargaining to be seen. Chris Tucker, a 28-year-old grocer and self-described beer expert, is a big bear of a man. But Donovan's announcement hit him especially hard.
"It's been difficult to stop crying," said Tucker, a member of the supporters group the L.A. Riot Squad.
"That's my boy. He's played the same amount of years as Cobi [Jones]. He's won more titles than Cobi did. I understand it's not shocking necessarily. It seems like he's been done for a little bit, but he's playing phenomenally right now, so it hurts to lose someone like that. Landon deserves a statue here. Hopefully he becomes coach one day."
Landon Donovan to retire
- Parker: We are all Landon Donovan
- Carlisle: Donovan will always invite debate
- McIntyre: A legacy that will grow
- Five Aside: Donovan's impressive career
- FC TV: Is he retiring too soon?
- Photo gallery: Landon Donovan
- Reaction to Donovan's decision
- Greatest MLS moments
MLS today is unrecognizable from the league that was on view when Donovan arrived in 2001.
In fact, not much had changed four years later when he made his highly controversial move from San Jose to L.A. by way of a brief stint with Bayer Leverkusen. The idea that a David Beckham, Thierry Henry or Kaka would play in MLS was pure fantasy. In terms of star power, Donovan was about all the league had. But for some fans that was enough.
"Donovan is the reason I started watching MLS, especially when he signed with the Galaxy from San Jose," said 26-year-old Justin Alives. "It was huge. It's just as huge as when Beckham came to the Galaxy. It was big. It was like, 'Wow, it's Donovan.'
"It's sad. I feel really bad. I'm an L.A. Galaxy fan because of him. It's too soon I feel. He could still play, he's still performing."
Perhaps another sign of how far MLS has come is that the impending departure of Donovan didn't rank as the deepest cut for one fan. Stephanie Sherwood, 26, heard about Donovan's announcement on the way to work, and admitted to "putting on a fake smile" for the rest of the day. But the reason she became a Galaxy fan was down to someone else.
"It was Mike Magee," she said of the former Galaxy midfielder. "[His departure] was sad to see too. I'm still sore. I'm not going to talk about that one."
On an evening when Donovan replica jerseys were everywhere, Peter Burgess and his wife, Patricia Dixon, still stood out. Burgess was decked out in Everton blue, Dixon in Galaxy white. For both fans, what they'll remember about Donovan wasn't so much the goals or the records, but the way he carried himself.
"Donovan's sportsmanship, when he plays internationally and here, he shows people how the game should be played and what it means to be a football player," said Dixon.
Burgess recalled how during last year's Gold Cup, Donovan donned a pair of sunglasses that had been thrown at him by El Salvador fans.
"Donovan could get mad at that stuff but didn't," he said. "That's a really good trait, to be able to turn things that could be really negative and make it work for him."
Of course, there are those who aren't quite buying Donovan's announcement.
"In my mind, Donovan has earned the right to be able to do this, and more power to him," said Kevin Fitzsimmons, 48, who hails from nearby Torrance.
"But I wouldn't be surprised if he pulls a Brett Favre and in 18 months, after his batteries are recharged, saying, 'Yeah, maybe I'll sit on the bench [somewhere].' It's not about his physical condition, it's about what's going on up here, in his head."
But even amid the sadness -- and in some cases skepticism -- there was also acceptance and hope. Announcements like Donovan's can give fans a sense of purpose, and now the goal for the rest of the season is clear: Provide the necessary level of support to send Donovan out in style with his sixth MLS Cup. That was the approach of ACB members Osmin and Sergio Pena, who have been Galaxy fans since their father took them to the inaugural game back in 1996.
"My brother and I were in the car yesterday, and we were saying this will give the team motivation," said Osmin. "We've needed a spark all season long, and this is it. It's unfortunate it had to be that way, but this is what we needed. We're going to send Donovan out on a high."
Alives added, "There's nothing we can do now, but we have to win MLS Cup. It has to be the perfect retirement, just like Becks when he left. He left a champion, and it's only right for the king of MLS."
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.