Unorthodox Star Took U.S. Soccer on New Path

Landon Donovan announced that he would retire at the end of the M.L.S. season, but it will be a while before the United States sees another player like him.

Comments: 74

  1. A really well-written and thoughtful appreciation. And not to beat a dead horse, but the minute Altidore's hamstring snapped (and with it, the USMNT's hopes in Brazil), don't you think we all (you too, Jurgen) could have used a little Landon Donovan?

  2. We will miss you, Landon!

  3. Landon Donovan's accomplishments are not trivial, but remember his 5 World Cup goals and 12 World Cup games are the most by any American MAN, not the most by any American.

  4. To my knowledge, no woman has ever played, let alone scored, in the World Cup, which is not to be confused with the Women's World Cup, which is a totally separate tournament with its own history and statistics. Anyone who can distinguish between North and South Carolina should be able to keep these two tournaments straight in their heads.

  5. Retiring at 32. Add another notch to the enigma belt he wears. He must have a solid four more years in his tank...why quit now? Why? I think he may be a little too emotional for his own good in this game. Nothing at all wrong with that certainly...what I mean is, this seems to be a dude who's constantly looking inward and asking "why"? As in, "Why am I here? What's the meaning of life?" It's his life, of course, but if you ask me, this sort of bolsters Klinsman's choice to leave him off the Brazil squad - there' something in this guy's DNA that makes him ask too many questions, rather than just be the soccer cyborg Klinsman desired, and which Henry, Lampard, Howard, et al seem to be. Those guys? They play till they can't anymore. Their choice. Like quitting is Donovan's. No loss to either side. I wish him well...and hope he finds happiness. US National Soccer on the men's side will be just fine w/out him on the field. Just PLEASE...don't do one of those anti-retirement moves and come back. Spare us that drama please.

  6. Retirement from a sport like soccer at 32 is not too early if you've had it. With Donovan, I think he's had it. There are many who play on through their 30s and play significant roles in the game.

    There is no question that it is harder to keep up with younger players as you age and Donovan surely came to that conclusion.

    Donovan surely must feel his body aging and there is no question in my mind this is a reason for his decision.

    It's good for him to make the decision to go out while he feels he is on top of his game instead of staying on for years as a bench sitter with limited playing time.

  7. If the critique of Donovan is that he takes to heart Plato's insight, that "The unexamined life is not worth living" — that a thoughtful reflection on life is essential to being human — then we should all have his shortcomings.

    I'm reminded of a conversation I had a couple months after finishing my last college season, when I dropped by the gym to chat with my offensive line coach. I was well on my way to deciding to go to grad school, rather than giving the NFL a shot, and out of idle curiosity I asked my coach, "In your professional opinion, what's my biggest weakness as a football player?" I expected he'd have some insight as to my blocking technique, or my reading of defenses and stunts, or something like that.

    Instead, he laughed warmly, and said, "Your biggest weakness as a football player is that you understand way too clearly that there is so much in life that is so •much• more important than football!"

    I found that pretty easy to live with then, and I still do. I suspect Donovan is well situated for a very healthy life, inside his head and out, for the many decades to come.

    — Brian

  8. Sam,
    I was pleased that your excellent tribute to Landon Donovan emphasized his originality and independence. Too many coaches shy away from strong willed players, but leaders like Donovan should be welcome on any team.
    I was introduced to soccer in 1948 at the age of fourteen and have been an avid fan ever since. I’ve seen Pele play when he was 18 and most of the greats since. I never compare stars from different generations, but Donovan will always be among my favorites for how he willed soccer into the American conscience.

  9. A good article and it doesn't even come close to telling the whole story of Landon Donovan.

    Plus, the "failures" you speak of aren't accurately called "failures". There were so many factors that impacted Donovan staying in MLS and not going to Europe and many of the discrepancy between his value to MLS and his International market value.

    Thanks for covering soccer. Loved reading your article and being reminded of some great things about LD and the game.

  10. LD will be remembered as the greatest soccer player the US has produced and one of a very small club of American world-class players (many of whom are goalies). Donovan was a gifted technical player whose greatest strength was his uncanny ability to score in the clutch. This is why I still wonder what Donovan could have done in the World Cup. He scored against a Bayern Munich team last night and Germany's starting lineup was essentially 70% Bayern players. I think if Donovan is in front of goal instead of Wondolowski against Belgium late in regulation, the US would have played another game.

  11. He needs to be gone. Let's hope some true talent surfaces. The Jordans, Kobes are out there.

  12. Um...those are basketball players.

  13. Nice tribute. Soccer has come a long way in Landon Donovan's time, and he really helped propel that change. Thanks Landon for taking us along for the ride.

  14. What a well-written article about a deserving athlete. This is why we read the sports pages.

  15. Another great article from Sam Borden.

  16. Mexico worst enemy retires...hats off to him even if hatred remains.

  17. A very good player, but any comparisons to Michael Jordan are fatuous. One of the best American male players, but not a blip on the radar of the number 10 roster named by Borden in this article.
    Unlike basketball, the US has never dominated soccer as a sport. The US thoroughly dominates basketball, and Jordan is one of almost anyone's all time starting five. Landon Donovan might well be the best of an all time American XI, but he is nowhere remotely close to anyone's all time world XI. The article seems to imply otherwise, which is just silly.

  18. After all these years, still so much Donovan hatred out there. Why? What's the point? The fact is, as the article indicates, Donovan retires as the single most accomplished American men's soccer player, ever. Does this make him the equivalent of a Messi or a Maradona? No, obviously not. But for those of us who care about the growth of the game in America, no player has had more of a positive impact on this process over the last fifteen years than Donovan has. For that, he deserves nothing but commendation in my book at the end of the day.

  19. Paul, I can't agree that the article implies that Donovan might be considered among the world all-time best-eleven. It's clear that Borden is making a case about Donovan's preëminent place in the history of the game in the •U.S.•, and that alone.

    — Brian

  20. "But No. 10 is the most special. It is the playmaker’s jersey, the jersey worn by a team’s soul and pulse and engine. It is the jersey worn by the star who can sprinkle magic at any moment. Pelé wore No. 10. Diego Maradona wore No. 10. Lionel Messi wears No. 10. Neymar wears No. 10."

    Talk about hyperbole. Are you attempting to compare LD to any of those world class players?

    The US has had many world class athletes in basketball, tennis, hockey, etc. Maybe even Tim Howard in soccer. LD was not one of them and did not even come close.

  21. really great article. captured all the mixed feelings i had about donovan over the years.

    one thing i've loved about donovan is that he's been true to himself, and seems to follow his heart. he knew what he was comfortable doing and not doing and he stayed true to himself even when that went against conventional wisdom.

  22. "He worked wonders with the ball... His legacy is one of originality, of experimentation"

    Please. He was a kick and chase artist. Big fish in a very little pond.

  23. not in the least. He was one of the few American players to combine speed, skill, on the ball, vision and passing ability

  24. This comment is so offbase that you either don't know much about the game or you're not watching the same player. Kick and run? He moves better with the ball at his feet than any player in the history of American soccer and better than most players of his generation, anywhere.

  25. Adam, comparing him to other American players actually makes my point.

  26. Arguably one of the best outfield players ever to don the NT kit but never ever remotely near a world class player.

    Some poster below claims that LD's retiring bolsters JK's decision to cut him from the WC roster. What a inane claim. JK made a decison re:LD based on personal animus and nothing else. A lot of people wanted to see LD in Brazil instead of the likes of Who's Wondo?, Bedoya, Davis, etc.

    Wish the lad well, he put an indleible stamp on the American game.

  27. Are you seriously comparing Landon Donovan to....Michael Jordan? There is much to admire about Donovan as a player, but this is just a little bit over the top. Actually, it's a lot over the top. Jordan was the undisputed best player in the world in his sport, and for a long time. Donovan, for all his quality and skill, never really took on the challenge of trying to play long-term at the highest level he could. He preferred to stay in his comfort zone, as a big fish in the small and cozy pond of MLS. I will always remember him as a really good player, one of the best Americans to date, but one who was unwilling to risk failure or suffer too much hardship to make it to the top.

  28. So I'll take a shot at rephrasing for the author the point I think he was trying to make . . .

    There is no overstating Donovan's importance to American soccer during his career. As the author states, Donovan guided the national team -- several versions of it, with varying quality in supporting cast surrounding him. Simply put, he's of a different class than many other US players who played alongside him throughout these years. MLS too has benefitted tremendously from Donovan's contribution and his commitment to the league. He has without question raised the profile of American soccer (club + country) from novelty to its current status of popularity.

    I was disappointed the mainstream American media gave Klinsmann a free pass on his decision to omit Donovan from the World Cup roster. Soccer writers criticized it appropriately, and other American players and coaches found it utterly preposterous. The omission was glaring and the US team sorely missed his presence. I applaud the spirit of the US players in Brazil, but Klinsmann made a debacle of it, one they couldn't overcome. His bungling of this World Cup is rivaled in US Soccer history only by Sampson's meltdown leading up to France 98.

  29. Yes, I completely agree. I am not putting down the MLS, but top soccer players do not view the American League as a potential for individual growth. Donovan as good as he was decided to stay home, but he could have had more potential abroad

  30. @Jim: Had Borden written what YOU did, I don't think there would have been much basis for argument, although he was hardly the "leader" of the 2002 team. THAT number 10 was the estimable Claudio Reyna.
    But not only did Sam Borden, a professional sportswriter, make comparisons between Landon Donovan and Michael Jordan (in how they will be remembered, which was a completely fatuous conceit), but he had previously made a somewhat less than oblique comparison to the way Donovan "was his country's heartbeat," alongside Pele, Maradona and Messi. Two of those guys are on *anybody's* ALL-TIME World XI, and the other is a four time World Player of the Year. The comparisons are astonishingly inapt, and somebody should have talked Mr. Borden down from the limb before he got it sawed off behind him.

  31. [[Landon Donovan, like Michael Jordan in basketball, will remain one of American soccer's icons even in retirement.]]

    Yeah. Dude! Seriously?!?


    Stop it.

    Just stop.

    That's just a stupid comparison to try to make. I'm looking at Donovan's picture now and in three minutes I wouldn't be able to pick him out of a lineup.

  32. i started follow US soccer (MLS/MNT) AFTER 2009 so i do not quite understand the Landy phenom, at best he is just an average player compared to the world's best. however, his departure clean out the deck, eliminating one distraction so that more americans emerged as truly global soccer stars, who play at the first team of Barca, Man U, RM, BM...etc. i certainly hope young american soccer player aspire to be and disciplined to work to become world's best. not like Landy.

  33. LD -- Greatest USA soccer player, ever! Thank-you.

    Why the whiners and complainers have anything else to say is a complete mystery and a waste of time and effort. They are certainly not the equal of the man in any regard.

  34. That would be Mia Hamm or Michelle Akers. Donovan would a good player. I was fine with Jurgen leaving him off the squad. Yes, the 2006 version of landon probably would've buried the shot that Wandolowski gagged on but dems the breaks. Overall, he was very good US men's player. But he does not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as a global icons stand with global icons like Messi, Pele, Jordan or Maradona. These guys were able to represent their nation in finals, and were known throughout the globe. LD was good player on a mediocre team, kind like an Andrew Bogut.

  35. Unfortunately I have never heard of Mr. Donovan. I hope he has a nice retirement.

  36. Donovan was not a good WC player and calling "haters" those of us who think so does not change that fact. Even If LD had better futbol skills his fragile personality would have stopped him from performing well in the world stage.

    Good luck to him in his post - futbol life.

  37. Landon Donovan was/is a decent middle tier player who fit into and American sports writer narrative but who clearly never pushed himself, never made the first team whenever on load at Everton (a middle tier club), never made an effort to play for a world class club, took a sabbatical at 31 and is now leaving the game when players older than him around the world are still outperforming him. 137 goals in one of the weaker leagues in the world is not an accomplishment to gloat over.

  38. In his first loan spell, in particular, at Everton, he did very well. His first month there, he was Premier League player of the month. His first touch in England was a corner for a goal early in a 2-2 draw at Arsenal. Try to be fair and accurate. You have gone to the opposite extreme of the exaggeration in the article itself.

  39. I think this article, despite a bit (small bit) of overstatement of equivalence of his significance to a sport, and the comments, reflect my mixed feelings about Landon Donovan. And one elephant in the room that nobody has mentioned, is his extremely photogenic, strikingly handsome face. He tearing off his shirt after a goal in 2002 attracted at least as much attention as did Brandi Chastain tearing off hers in similar circumstances.

    He was, indeed, an outstanding player when he was on. When he was not, he was as aggravating as Wayne Rooney has often been for England and Manchester United. He did add a lot to the US Men's National Team. However, I believe Jurgen Klinsmann made the right choice to not include him for this year's Cup finals. If he believes it is time to retire from the sport, then yes, it is certainly time. But thank you, Landon, for the good you did when you were deserving your star status. You contributed, at that time in your career, a lot to the standing of USA in the soccer world.

  40. Well said, Ken.

  41. A tip of the hat to a wonderful career. A deserved trip to Brazil would have been a nice way to bow out. Doubly so given what happen to JA.

  42. I agree with those who characterize the Michael Jordan comparison as over the top (and a little ridiculous), but there's no need to bash Donovan or his accomplishments - his performance on the field, specially his years with the national team, was instrumental in the growth of soccer in the States.

    Was he a world class player? No, he wasn't. But while the sport has grown incredibly over the past couple of decades in the States, we're not quite at the stage of our national development where we're producing world class players (Tim Howard being the probable exception). I wonder if Donovan would have gotten to that level had he decided to stick it out in Europe? He clearly has the talent, but I don't think he was willing put in the work and endure the hardship to thrive at the top levels of the game.

    In any case, it's hard to argue with the fact that he leaves the game as an important figure in the national game.

  43. A vary fair, and probably most accurate comment.

  44. Landon, You are too young to retire!!! I blame your shrink!!!! Please reconsider...

  45. Of course Donovan resented Beckham because he never was as good as Beckham had been before he became a teammate. Look at today's young stars from the recent World Cup being signed up by top European teams and perhaps many of them will become just another Donovan and slink back home. It's a tough world at the top and Donovan, despite what his fans thought and expected of him, was not at that level. Despite all the best efforts in the U.S., soccer is still not catching on as a major sport. At best it ranks with the WNBA and the defunct Women's Professional Baseball League.

  46. Donovan could not survive the Bundesliga. That worked against him with Klinsmann, the US Coach for the 2014 World Cup. Much later he was on loan at Everton in the Premier League and he did not fare well.

    When it came to big leagues Donovan could not up his game. Same problem with Michael Bradley.

  47. "Much later he was on loan at Everton in the Premier League and he did not fare well."

    Can you provide a link to substantiate his failures at Everton? Everything I've ever read said he was LOVED by the coaches and supporters at Everton, so much so that after his in initial loan spell in 2010, he was asked back in 2011, brought back in 2012, and asked back again in 2013.

    Do you believe a successful club like Everton would bring a "failure" back FOUR times?

  48. @angus:
    On the contrary, he fared VERY well with Everton, and was Premier League Player of the month for one of the four months he spent Merseyside. In fact, David Moyes tried to convince him to make the transfer permanent, but Donovan demurred, as he did when asked to spend a third loan spell at Everton. But he had three failed spells in the Bundesliga (both at Bayern and at Bayer Leverkusen), and while he did well at Everton, his sum total time there added up to less than half a single season.
    Bradley had a much more checkered European experience: Outstanding at Heerenveen and Chievo, awful at Aston Villa, and victimized by managerial changes at both Borussia Monchengladbach and at Roma, where, under managers who liked him, he got regularly run out, then didn't when managers (Roma) or circumstances (Borussia MG) changed. I'm not sure that Rudi Garcia gave him a realistic chance to win the starting job once Garcia arrived at Roma, and the lack of a chance precipitated the transfer to TFC, which clearly left him unprepared for this WC, compared to 2010, when he was excellent.

  49. Thank you, Landon Donovan -- without question, your efforts and abilities have landed Major League Soccer, and our national Team USA on the international stage. We played well in the World Cup this year against some of the strongest teams on the planet, and have every chance of advancing in the future. Hopefully, this is something you can be proud of.

  50. I don't think there has ever been a more average player than Donovan. I appreciate what he did, but I don't think the game will suffer one iota.

    As much indifference as I have towards LD, he would have buried that follow-up that Wondo squandered against Belgium.

    Final thought: I wish I could retire from my current job at 32.

  51. While Donovan was a "good" player by international standards who had enormous talent, this article is way over the top. In the end, he was great promise that never materialized. He could not cut it in Europe, which defines competitive soccer. In some ways he hurt the US team, because his example led other promising Americans to stay in MLS hampering their development. Look at the competitive teams at the World Cup: their best players play in Europe or they did not make the quarterfinals. I do acknowledge that as a "face" for US soccer, he helped make it more popular, but much of that was also the growth of Youth Soccer and would have happened anyway. He is simply not a World Class player by his own choice to be a big fish in a small pond.

  52. He had the talent to be a big star in Europe but he didn't have the desire or drive. Surprising for an American.

  53. Thank you for this article which speaks well to Donovan's significant legacy.

  54. This article has fallen into the sexism trap. Please update it to refer to the US Men's National Team, not just the US National Team. We have more than one, and that other senior national team, and its players, have been very successful. Please stop erasing them and their achievements by failing to qualify the men's national team as such.

  55. Oh, for crying out loud, chill out. They're both the US National Team.

  56. I think everyone understands which national team is being discussed, and which one Donovan played for. The "need" to differentiate is contrived and superfluous. Do we need to mention that Michael Jordan played MEN'S professional basketball? There is a WNBA, after all.

    There may be a time and a place for you to climb atop that soapbox. This ain't it.

  57. Time to drop the pretense of equivalence when talking about caps earned, goals scored, games and trophies won or lost. We are talking about two very different things here. The rules of the game are the same, but they are different games and the men's and women's programs are also in very different stages of their development, both in the USA and internationally. And-no small matter this-they are very different in what they cost and what they earn for US Soccer. Why can't we just appreciate each program for what it's worth and what it's achieved? I doubt the writer intended to slight the USWNT in any way and implying he's somehow sexist because he didn't specify that he was writing about the USMNT, and not ALL US National Teams, is not only disingenuous, it's silly. Here's a good interview with Bruce Arena on the women's game and it's development in the US:

  58. Landon was always worth watching. He was a talented athlete/player with good technical ability and a good sense of the tactical needs of the team. His speed of foot and thought were always there and he was one of the few US players who one had the confidence could change the game on a moment's notice.

    It was a shame that he wasn't in Brazil for as someone stated, "If he wasn't one of our top 23 players then we should have won the World Cup!"

    Klinsmann will never be able to explain omitting Landon. As soon as Altidore was injured the whole of our team tactics changed. With Landon on the bench, none of that had to take place, i.e., Dempsey and Bradley subsequently playing the remainder of the tournament out of position.

  59. That quote, which was "competed for," not necessarily to have won the World Cup, came from Donovan's current club manager and 2002 and 2006 USMNT manage Bruce Arena. He's got a point, but is hardly an objective source.

  60. Quote came from Bruce Arena, Tim!

  61. To those that say Landon was not a world class player,
    going into the 2014 World Cup, he had more world cup goals (5) than Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Wayne Rooney combined (3).

    He was a very special player, with vision, speed and ball skills that made him a world class player. In his prime, he was the best Ameican player we have seen, and may see again in a long time. I wish him well.

  62. Will miss LD, a great USA #10 and real person too.

  63. This article is a great tribute to Landon. The development and interest in soccer in the US, I believe rose alongside the career of Landon Donovan.

    His creative style, clutch performances, and charismatic personality are what I will remember of him.

    My love for the game and for the US National team grew with Landon's contributions.

    I could care less whether he is a world class player or not. I will always miss him as part of US Soccer. Thank you Landon for all your contributions.

  64. Another nonsensical post by @ Louis from NJ.

    He posts, "Donovan was not a good WC player and calling "haters" those of us who think so does not change that fact. Even If LD had better futbol skills his fragile personality would have stopped him from performing well in the world stage."

    For the USMNT Donovan was a very good player. However as many people have noted he was not ever a world class player. At present he will go down as one of the best and most skilled outfield players along with Claudio Reyna the USA has ever had.

    Louis still needs years of exposure to really educate himself about the game.

  65. Landon Donovan is the best American to ever play. He has set the stage for a truly top class American player to emerge and lead his side to a Champion's League medal (hopefully UEFA and not just Concacaf).

  66. The only Americans to win *any* sort of Champions league medals have been a couple of Americans on Mexican sides in the CCL...
    As for the best American ever to play, um, no. Both Kasey Keller and Tim Howard are already well ahead in my eyes.

  67. Landon was a great player for a lot of years, but the thought that he was from the outer stratosphere and we won't see another one like him is, as someone said here, over the top. I watched him play in MLS before the World Cup and after. It's clear he can't run anymore, and as I noticed this I had my doubts that he'd make the final team for Brazil. I am thankful to Donovan for giving all that he did for our national teams, but I was also disappointed that for some reason, he couldn't go full bore in Europe for any length of time. There have been other American players who had a cup of coffee over there, but didn't want to stay. It takes a certain type of mentality and strength of character to deal with all that one deals with overseas. Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel are perhaps the best example of someone who forged a long term careers in Europe. Donovan couldn't or did not want to cut it at Bayern the first time with Klinsmann, and then when he took the sabbatical just as qualifying was starting, that couldn't have helped him. Combine that with what I saw with my own eyes (Landon has lost 2-3 steps and can't go full bore anymore) and the writing was on the wall. I think he knows this -- which is why he's hanging it up. We will miss him as a player, but let's not get carried away. There are many new players on the way up -- and ones who are -- like Keller and Friedel -- determined and fully capable of enduring all that is necessary to play against the very best in Europe.

  68. This article is way overboard. Of many things that could be said, we need this perspective. If a great basketball player (like a Michael Jordan or Lebron James) grew up in Europe and on reaching his late teens or early twenties said he was homesick and could not handle the NBA, would anyone in the USA have ever paid attention to him again. Obviously no. For a basketball player the NBA is the top of the hill and no one becomes king unless they succeed there. Playing for a month in the NBA or scoring in one game against NBA competition would not prove anything other than a possible waste of potential. Yet this describes Donovan's career perfectly. He could have been great but lacked the fortitude to demonstrate this. Klinsmann saw this and justifiably dropped him. It is time for sportswriters like Borden to figure it out.

  69. Well said. Sportswriters are not the only ones who need to figure that out.

  70. I think we forget that before they are Soccer players they are human beings. He went to Germany at a very tender age and had to do without family.

  71. In the last 15 years, he has become the most successful player ever to wear the USMNT jersey. I fully expect that 15 years from now in 2029, we will be commenting on one of many challengers for that title.
    Kudos to him for remaining true to himself and conducting himself as he did. But, what could have been...had the motivation to excel and win against the very best competition overcome the reasons he chose to remain in MLS?
    I'll never argue about his on-field skills or talent, or the impact he has had on MLS and USMNT but by choosing not to risk failure or experience the discomfort associated with a transfer into the most competitive domestic leagues, I can't really agree with most of the sentiment and attention he receives.

  72. Thank you Landon Donovan. It's been fun seeing you represent the US for so many years.