Featured, January 2013, USMNT

As Landon Ponders Goodbye, We Hope For Understanding

If Donovan's second half penalty was his final clutch goal, it would make perfect sense.

If Donovan’s second half penalty was his final clutch goal, it would make perfect sense.

Neil W. Blackmon

““I’m going to take as much time as I need and decide if and when I’m ready to come back… I can’t put a time frame on that. If it takes two weeks and I’m ready to go again or two months or a year or two years. Or never. I don’t know.”

Landon Donovan to the LA Times, November 2012

If indeed the MLS Cup final was Landon Donovan’s final match, it’s hard to deny that it served as a fitting microcosm of a career. Immense expectation, an immense moment, and one well-earned. A glorious run at the beginning, a horrific miss, a mental lapse, a deficit, mounting pressure, and of course, a clinical and stirring finish. That redemption came in a Cup Final, in the largest of moments; that Donovan’s LA became not simply the Galaxy but Galaxy defenders added more fiction to a tale very deeply rooted in realism. That it all occurred in the final game of David Beckham’s grand American soccer experiment; that Beckham’s experiment didn’t fail and was injected with one more championship, one last legacy-sustaining memory, all from the man whom writers and fans alike feared could not co-exist with the global superstar—well, that made the match fit for the Hollywood studios an hour and a half’s drive down the 110 from where it was played. And as David Beckham wandered the field, hugging teammates, talking to the media, all the while pausing, raising his arms and clapping towards the Galaxy supporters, embracing his final moment, Landon Donovan was still considering whether this would be his. If, in the end, that’s the match that was Landon Donovan’s last as a professional soccer player, it was a storybook ending. If it was not, well, there’s much more for Donovan to do, even accomplish. And while writers, fans and cynics alike each have a variety of opinions as to what Donovan will/should do and why, one reality is obvious: it’s entirely up to Donovan. The other reality- and this is far less obvious—whatever Donovan decides is perfectly okay. And understandable. And while Brian Straus of The Sporting News reports decision time is near, no one, even in the gut, has any genuine idea what he’ll do. If there’s anything we’ve learned about Landon Donovan over the last decade-plus, it’s that he’s a complicated fellow. Complicated. Frustrating. Wonderful.

The rumors and story about Donovan’s possible retirement have raged since late spring, after Donovan gave an interview (excerpt above) to a small collective of soccer writers in the buildup to the Scotland friendly in Jacksonville, Florida suggesting that he’d lost a bit of his passion for the game, and that he had “many better” things to do in his life still. There’s nothing earth-shattering about the latter comments, but the former were a bit eye-opening for a player just past 30. As the season dragged on, Donovan missed matches, battled uncharacteristic inconsistency and form, and even skipped international duties on occasion. The rumblings grew louder, reaching a crescendo in the buildup to the MLS Cup final.

Speaking in hushed tones after a masterful USMNT performance this summer, Donovan told us "it wasn't a matter of not caring."

Speaking in hushed tones after a masterful USMNT performance this summer, Donovan told us “it wasn’t a matter of not caring.”

Donovan remained non-committal, both in the pre-match press conferences and after the match, but among many answers, one comment he made (to ESPN) was striking to me:

“While most soccer fans think a player’s life is easy as we just seem to play soccer all the time, they don’t see how many milestones I have missed with my family. My family want me to either play and be happy or else to have their son and brother back.” 

He spoke of a moment on the field with a family member, and how special it was, and how he wanted to be around for more of those. He spoke softly and sentimentally, as he has since June, when his tone was nearly inaudible after a monstrous performance against Scotland in Jacksonville.  Citing burnout and drained passion, he sounded worn-down and weary, yet fully in control. Excellence requires pushing yourself to the edge of your capabilities until the edge expands, but a man should know his limit, my father always told me. Donovan sounded very much like such a self-aware man.

And here’s the thing. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Landon Donovan has never been dishonest about his passion for the game, the status of it in his list of life priorities, or his view of the role as American soccer savior, thrust so eagerly upon him by the masses after a brilliant summer’s day at the Jeonju Castle in South Korea nearly eleven years ago. “I’m different than most players,” he admitted to ESPN in 2006. “It’s not like, what’s the best club I can get to? That’s not important to me.” Family, location, the close comforts of home have always driven Donovan, for better or worse.

Being a homesick teenager, more than anything, caused failure in Germany in the aftermath of that glorious summer in South Korea. Reluctance to depart MLS without taking his wife with him prevented a loan spell prior to his successful stint with Everton in 2010. The chance to stay home in Southern California led to his signing with the Galaxy. The reluctance to leave Southern California, more, one could at least fairly speculate, than a massive transfer fee, prevented a permanent move to England in the aftermath of his first fine spring at Goodison Park. Family and home drive Donovan, and if that has disappointed some, it’s probably because that wasn’t what they had in mind when they imagined how they wanted their self-adorned “savior of American soccer” to perform or behave.

An American soccer savior since this moment-- Donovan's given more than just a full head of hair to the game stateside.

An American soccer savior since this moment– Donovan’s given more than just a full head of hair to the game stateside.

Fans and writers alike have criticized his focus, questioned his motives, critiqued his “lack of passion.” But the truth is no one should be surprised and really, though for selfish reasons, we could (and maybe should) all be disappointed, no one should be too critical. Donovan may not have given fans and even American writers (of which, myself included, there are exponentially more than there were when Donovan earned his “Savior” status ten years ago, largely because of well, Donovan) precisely what they wanted in a transformative, household name American soccer icon, but, if indeed he is finished, he certainly has given us more than enough. You could argue, in fact, that given his psychological makeup, he’s given us more than he himself thought he was capable of giving.

Donovan was the first USMNT jersey so many of you bought that struck up a conversation with a stranger. If Frankie Hejduk is the spiritual leader of the marvelous “grow soccer in America one beer at a time” project/website that is Free Beer Movement, Landon Donovan is its “John the Baptist”, the guy who started the conversation that started the ministry. His performance in Korea meant more jerseys and more conversations, only this time with validation. Wearing a USMNT jersey could still be a lonely, existential exercise, but now if you were the guy in the Donovan jersey at the end of the bar, you always had Portugal, and dos-a-cero, and “wow we got hosed against Germany.” That Donovan was a starry-eyed, All-American looking kid from southern California who liked to go surfing and play video games made mainstreaming him all the more simple. Donovan was long-awaited proof that “homegrown American soccer star” wasn’t a phrase better suited for Quixote. Americans could grow their own stars. Americans could play with the European and South American giants. Americans could own Mexico.

When Donovan failed in Germany, in many ways, you, the American fan, failed with him. You’d sold the teenage talent to the non-believer—he was proof a homegrown American could play brilliantly among the stars in Europe. You’d privileged his talents over those already there: Alexi Lalas, Claudio Reyna, even Brian McBride. You were aware of how good they were, but they weren’t expanding the conversation. Donovan would. And then he didn’t. And then he came home. And then those who you bought a beer thanked you for the beer and moved on. Donovan can’t even make it, they said. One-hit wonder, they huffed. But at least there had been a conversation.

The 2006 World Cup team, Reyna knee crumble and all, had more issues than an invisible Landon Donovan. But the failure of its star was what a nation cared about...

The 2006 World Cup team, Reyna knee crumble and all, had more issues than an invisible Landon Donovan. But the failure of its star was what a nation cared about…

At home, Donovan shined, one of the finest players in a league that didn’t die like so many cynical folks said it would. His teams won championships and his game improved. And despite the entry of other American players into various European leagues, Donovan was still the critical, mainstream link- the name people recognized. It made the failures of Germany 2006, highlighted by Donovan’s invisible performance, all the more difficult to bear. It didn’t matter that to the astute fan, the 06 team, with an aged Claudio Reyna and an injured John O’Brien, may have been doomed from the get-go. It didn’t matter that a phantom Onyewu foul in the final match was the death blow. It was Donovan’s absence, and the fact that he didn’t (publically) seem to share our own personal anguish about the team’s failure, that was so crushing. You were ready to start more conversations; Donovan hadn’t delivered the talking points.

And yet, again at home, he found a level of peace. Now the finest player in an expanding league, he teamed up with a global icon and both became the better for it. Sold out arenas greeted the icon those first couple of years, but they also gazed fondly at his American teammate. “That’s our guy”, you could say to the casual fan there to see the icon bend it. “He can play too.” He even wore the armband occasionally, and you got to explain what that meant. Captain. Leader. Grown-up.

In the meantime, and if you blinked you missed it, the game domestically was bigger than ever. Unprecedented coverage for the Euro in 2008. Fox Soccer Channel in cable packages, with constant coverage of the game stateside and overseas. A US starting 11 in World Cup qualifying nearly filled out by players in elite European leagues. The Confederations Cup in 2009 brought the most expansive coverage of US soccer in history—and this for a relatively inconsequential international tournament. The Americans used it as a jumping off point, more proof they could compete with the best, more indication that 2010 might be different than the last time around. Clint Dempsey’s tears showed us American players finally genuinely expected to defeat a giant; Landon Donovan’s counterattacking goal (see charts below) against Brazil that same day showed us American players finally could execute with world-class tactical excellence against the same.

Robinho's ball into the box is collected by Clark, who quickly sends it out to you know who...

Robinho’s ball into the box is collected by Clark, who quickly sends it out to you know who…

Part II of best US Goal in a Decade: Donovan receives ball, delivers it quickly to Davies.

Part II of best US Goal in a Decade: Donovan receives ball, delivers it quickly to Davies.

PART III- Greatest American Goal in a decade: Without a dribble, Davies delivers ball to breaking Donovan, who puts it in the net. Pandemonium ensues...

PART III- Greatest American Goal in a decade: Without a dribble, Davies delivers ball to breaking Donovan, who puts it in the net. Pandemonium ensues…

2010 brought Donovan full-circle from that summer in Jeonju. “Goal, Goal, USA!!” is our lasting memory, the one that spurred a viral youtube video and genuine watercooler conversation. The casual fans were buying us beers, now. Days prior, Donovan’s roofburner against Slovenia had lifted his side off the ropes, and “that’s what leaders do”, you screamed at anyone who would listen. It didn’t matter that Donovan wasn’t the States finest player at the tournament, and it didn’t matter that he was no longer the US’ finest player (though the effort to unseat him as such certainly contributed to the Clint Dempsey cult among the hard core fans). It had to be Landon Donovan. And when he blew a kiss to the camera (and Bianca), you had to blow a kiss back. The two of you had stuck it out together, and the exhilaration at the end made the agony in between worthwhile.

So here you are, a month away from beginning the final chapter on the road to Brazil 2014, and for the first time in over ten years, you don’t know if he’ll be there with you. And you’re thinking about what that means. And you’re thinking about what might have been. He should have stayed in Europe, you think. He should have gone to Everton sooner, you say. He left for Germany too young, you think. He can’t leave us now, you say, not when we’re this close. And maybe he won’t. But maybe you…we… are just afraid he will walk away. And we don’t know what that world looks like for American soccer. Maybe, as this incredible piece at The Shin Guardian suggests, we all have a case of “But I loved that band…” And maybe we should be prepared to let go.

Donovan has given so much of himself.. He was the central figure in a rapidly expanding domestic soccer universe, one where TV coverage has exploded, salaries have risen and international clubs have scouted and paid constant attention. A young American midfielder now starts in Rome. A handful started in the Champions League. The best field player in CONCACAF is, for the first time, American. A World Cup group has been won. And yes, Landon Donovan has been at the center of it all—not the reason, but one of them. A huge part of the conversation. And before him, well- the conversations were few and far between. You were the strange character in the jersey at the end of the bar, and no one knew what to say. And that legacy, those conversations, should be more than enough.

Landon might make all of this moot. Maybe he’ll spend enough time with his family and travel enough and decide he still needs the game. Notable writers have predicted this result. If that’s the case—great. As a (fledgling in terms of importance) soccer writer in America, I’d love to write more about Landon Donovan. And yes, I think the Yanks are a far better side with him today than without him tomorrow.

Landon has given so much of himself.  We should be okay with whatever he decides.

Landon has given so much of himself. We should be okay with whatever he decides.

But I also understand. As a new father and husband, it’s easy to see how you don’t want to miss anything, let alone miss the things Donovan has missed giving everything to this game and to us. You’ve probably noticed The Yanks Are Coming has been largely silent since last spring. Trust me, my fellow writers didn’t plan it that way. And yes, I still have a dream of writing about this game on a full-time basis, one I’ve had since a German wearing an Earthquakes jersey embraced me after the Czech Republic loss in 2006 and, in all-too proper English said, “Don’t worry, young boy, Brian Ching. He will score goals.” I’ve missed writing about the game. For me, being away from the writing has had its cost. I was told I’m not welcome, anymore, to write on a guest basis for another soccer website I enjoy. My fellow writers at TYAC, with the exception of our co-founder, have more or less moved on. Friendships were tested and my own passion for this sport questioned. But I wouldn’t do much of anything different. I don’t regret not writing for the past several months. And if anything, I’ll be better for it now that I’m back for good. And so will our website. And we’re just an independent soccer site, with no true external pressures other than day jobs and a US Soccer Federation that gives us short shrift from time to time.

If you think that’s heady stuff—it isn’t. It’s just life as a new husband and Dad. Those pressures are simple day to day stuff. Now imagine being Landon Donovan. Imagine being dubbed “savior” as a teenager, and pouring yourself into something for over a decade with hardly any vacation, and with ever-increasing scrutiny. No—don’t. Let the one we have be himself. Maybe he’ll be back.

Neil W. Blackmon is the Co-Founder and Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at nwblackmon@gmail.com or neil@yanksarecoming.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt