Landon Donovan will go down as the best player the U.S. has ever produced, but also the most confounding. This was especially true on Thursday, when he announced that he would retire from professional soccer at the end of the current MLS season.
Donovan's summer of discontent -- one that included his now-infamous World Cup snub -- had experienced an uptick in recent weeks. In his two most recent league outings against the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers, Donovan had delivered superb performances to lead the L.A. Galaxy to victory. Then on Wednesday he scored the game winner in the MLS All-Stars' 2-1 win over Bayern Munich, thanks to a deft finish past Bayern goalkeeper Manuel Neuer.
Donovan has long been beyond the point of needing to prove anything as a player. His 57 goals in 156 appearances for the U.S. national team, three World Cups, 138 MLS regular-season goals (and counting) and five MLS Cups are proof of that. So the idea that he made some kind of statement with his ASG performance against the club that once scorned him is completely unconvincing. Rather, the past two weeks have been more a reminder of just how good Donovan has been, and continues to be. In the process, he put his World Cup disappointment further into the background.
Which is why on one level his decision to retire now is a head-scratcher. He's still just 32 years old, and as long as he's enjoying the game and remains highly effective, why leave?
To hear Donovan tell it at Thursday's news conference, the same feelings that led him to take a sabbatical from the game last year cropped up again at times. He spoke of feeling "obligated to keep playing" and not having the same passion and energy that he had in previous years.
"My gut just told me it was right," he said. "It was the right time."
Donovan added that he made the decision to retire two weeks ago, and that his recent form was because of the decision rather than in spite of it.
"The way I've played is somewhat reflective of a weight being lifted off my shoulders," he said.
Donovan's longevity is such that it's hard to imagine the game going on without him, though obviously it will. Think of it this way: MLS is in its 19th season. Donovan has been around for the past 14 of them.
"I thought [Donovan] was going to retire after me," joked U.S. international teammate Jozy Altidore -- who is just 24 -- via telephone. "It's a guy you just wanted to play forever."
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Then again, there are no more worlds for Donovan to conquer as a player, and there is something to be said for departing on one's own terms as opposed to being told that he's no longer good enough. That has already happened at the international level, and while Donovan admitted getting left off the World Cup roster was the biggest disappointment of his career, he insisted that the omission had no bearing on Thursday's announcement.
"I've always made decisions in my life for my happiness," he said. "I certainly wasn't going to [let] one person's poor decision this summer affect this."
Such an approach is evident in Donovan's career path. His insistence on playing in MLS for the vast majority of his career went against the expectations that a player of his obvious ability should challenge himself abroad at the highest level. His career will always be viewed from the prism of what might have been.
But it's also difficult to argue with Donovan's choices, given his aforementioned achievements. His career spanned a period of incredible growth for the game in this country, at both domestic and international levels. There were long periods in which he was the face of the game, including spells when the sport's future was tenuous, to say the least. That soccer is now thriving is down to many factors, but Donovan's contribution to that growth may ultimately be his greatest legacy.
Off the field, Donovan has bucked convention as well. He is by no means the first player to give nuanced and thoughtful answers to questions. But the extent to which Donovan was willing to bare his soul about even the most personal of issues was captivating.
Such candor didn't always serve him well, however. "Never show weakness" seems to be the mantra of most star players, and the guarded approach that most of them take in public is understandable, given that the slightest misstatement or foible is often seized upon. But Donovan held up his frailties and disappointments right alongside his successes, whether it was his heroic goal against Algeria in 2010, or his highly disappointing performances at the 2006 World Cup. He spoke openly of his divorce from actress Bianca Kajlich, as well as the mental burnout that precipitated his taking a four-month sabbatical from the game last year. His admission in April that he couldn't always go all out in training in order to be effective almost seemed an invitation for Jurgen Klinsmann to leave him off the World Cup roster, which ended up being the case.
All this made Donovan more human, but it also invited intense criticism. In a world that is becoming increasingly scripted, that openness made him unique.
So, of course, is his ability, at least in U.S. terms. When I first saw Donovan play live for the San Jose Earthquakes in 2001, his quality was obvious. He was one of those players who seemed to have more time on the ball than everyone else, and his close control was like nothing I had ever seen from an American player. He was by no means the first U.S. player to receive hype, but he has been the first to largely fulfill that promise.
Sometime this fall, he will exit the field as a player for the last time. Even then his impact and achievements will be debated.
The fact that he'll be missed won't be.