I suppose the first question is, “Why did I wait until now to say my piece about the retirement of Landon Donovan?”
There were some practical concerns- I didn’t have enough time to sit down and write about this subject in a timely manner, for example- but most of all I didn’t want to become one more person enabling Donovan to “humble-brag” his way into retirement. I don’t begrudge Donovan his successes- and they have been many and varied- but at the same time, I think many people went a little bit overboard when it came to assessing Donovan’s career, both on and off the field. What I’d like to do in the next few paragraphs is to rein this enthusiasm in a little bit. Before I do that, however, I do want to make one thing clear: I don’t dislike Landon Donovan.
Which is not to say that I “like” him. As a player I respected his abilities and his drive. At his peak he was as “complete” a player as MLS has seen in its history. He had speed, technical ability, a knack for playing the right pass to the right person at the right time, and he could finish with the best of them. As a person, I like to think that I “understood” him. From the age of 16 (if not earlier) he was told by everyone around him that he was the man, the future, the “everything” of U.S. soccer. That led- in my opinion- to reinforcing certain aspects of his personality that, while allowing him to play at a high level, also prevented him from playing at the highest level in any meaningful way beyond that of his role on the USMNT. Specifically, that Donovan was never willing to take the “next step” in his career because he was never willing to leave his comfort zone. Landon knew, early on, that by staying in MLS he could be a star, he could live at the beach, date actresses, cash large checks, be a regular with the national team, and while I can’t bring myself to say he “didn’t work hard” at his craft, I think he knew that he could accomplish all of these things by giving 95% of his talent and attention, and only “turning it up” in international competition. I think it’s worthwhile- and relevant- to point out here that only once in a season did Donovan play in more than 25 matches (26 in 2012), despite playing in leagues that had between 35 and 45 matches per season. I don’t want to hang the “Landycakes” albatross around his neck again or to call him out as soft, but numbers are so consistent- 20-26 matches during each of the 15 full seasons he played- that it does make one wonder…
For me, this is why Donovan failed to make his mark in his several attempts in Germany. He was away from his support system (friends, family, and perhaps just as importantly, the loving embrace of the USSF), he wasn’t able to converse in either of the two languages he speaks (English and Spanish), and perhaps most importantly, being “Landon Donovan” got him absolutely nothing from the powers-that-be at Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich. He was no longer the center of attention, nobody was even remotely interested in “smoothing out the bumps” for him, nobody was interested in interviewing him after matches, etc.. A lot of these factors were not present- or were at least mitigated- when he went on his two loan spells to Everton, and Donovan shined. Still, he came back to MLS. The official story was that Everton wasn’t willing to pay a big enough transfer fee to get Donovan. Given Donovan’s stature in American soccer does anyone really believe that money was the stumbling block? I just can’t. I have a hard time believing it would have taken anything more than a phone call from Donovan to Don Garber to make it happen as long as the money was in the neighborhood of what MLS was looking for. Granted, MLS/Garber had a lot of time and money invested in keeping Donovan in the league, but it seems that could have used their considerable spin machine to turn the situation in the league’s favor- televising MLS/EPL-Everton double headers on Saturdays, for example?
With that out of the way I’d like to take a look at the way in which I believe many- media, former teammates, former managers, etc.- went astray in their assessment of Donovan’s career.
The problem that I had with the way in which most people handled Landon’s announcement was that when they were assessing his impact on soccer in the United States they confused “visibility” and “credibility.” No sane person can argue that Donovan did anything but make MLS, the USMNT, and American soccer in general more visible that any American player ever has. I feel confident in saying that if you polled non-football fans in the U.S. Donovan would be the only player most could name and he deserves credit for that. Not only did he perform on the field he was also a promoter of the game both directly (working on behalf of the league and the national team), and indirectly through endorsements deals with everyone from Nike, to Gatorade, to Seiko. He was the closest thing (male) American soccer had to a celebrity, appearing on the Late Show with David Letterman, The Daily Show, Good Morning America, etc. always representing American soccer as much as he was representing himself. To his credit, Donovan performed his duties as American’s soccer ambassador with aplomb and class. There were no scandals, no ugly contract negotiations, etc.. With the exception of his television work during the recent World Cup, he was a relaxed and likable figure that brought credit to himself and to the game. But again, this is all about “visibility,” not “credibility.”
I won’t say that Donovan hurt the credibility of American soccer, but he didn’t help it is as much as many people think he did. At the club level- especially during his stints in Germany- he more or less confirmed what most of the rest of the footballing world thought about U.S. players- they were great athletes, in some cases very good footballers, but at the same time, coddled, privileged, and satisfied with being “almost” the best. Donovan represented the middle class, white, station-wagon-owning, suburban demographic that is still- to the detriment of MLS and the USMNT’s development- the foundation of soccer in the United States. He was not a hungry young many looking for a way out of a favela in Morro do Castelo or a housing estate in Clichy-sous-Bois. The hard edge, the drive, the willingness to sacrifice because there was nothing to fall back on wasn’t there, and I think people beyond the U.S. saw that. I think it’s also fair to say that, through no fault of his own, Donovan was seen to have been placed on the top of the American soccer pyramid as much for his skill as for the lack of anyone else being available who ticked all of the boxes that Donovan did: white, middle class, well-spoken, media-friendly, etc.. That might have worked domestically- “appealing to the base,” so to speak- it didn’t abroad.
From my perspective the relentless promoting of the Donovan “brand” hurt the credibility of American soccer- especially outside of MLS- because there were, over the past 15 years, so many American players playing well and regularly in better leagues than MLS- some in the same leagues where Donovan could not- or chose not- “to cut it.” I think of players like Claudio Reyna who was already captaining a Bundesliga side before Donovan even came on the scene in Germany, and then went on to play in the top leagues in Scotland and England. I think of Brian McBride, who wasn’t able to claw his way into the EPL with Fulham until he was 32 and still had time to make himself a legend at the London club- they named a pub at Craven Cottage after him! Those are just two examples. There’s Damarcus Beasely, Gregg Berhalter, Carlos Bocanegra, and Kasey Keller, all of whom played regularly in the top divisions in three different European leagues. Or how about Steve Cherundolo (370+ Bundesliga matches) or Brad Friedel (550+ EPL matches, 43 years old, and still playing)? All of this and I haven’t even mentioned Tim Howard or Clint Dempsey. These are the players that brought credibility to American soccer beyond MLS either by being day-in, day-out professional players at the highest levels, or even going beyond that to become stars in these leagues as Howard and Dempsey clearly have.
Love him, hate him, or have no particular opinion on him, it’s hard to argue that the last 18 months have done anything but hurt Donovan’s personal credibility, his “legacy” if you will. First, he took a “sabbatical” from the game during his nation’s World Cup qualifying campaign when he should have just announced is international retirement- if not his overall retirement. Second, when he returned from his break he was incredulous that Jurgen Klinsmann didn’t select him for the World Cup in Brazil. Let’s think about this for a second: Donovan couldn’t understand that, after making comments about how he just didn’t have as much passion for the game as he used to, that a manager who harped on how he only wanted players who were “fully committed” to the cause didn’t want him.? Illogical, but not out of character given the way that the USSF/MLS “raised him.” He felt he was entitled to a spot on the team because, well, he was Landon Donovan. Jurgen Klinsmann- who has a player was on a different level than Donovan because he was all of the things Donovan wasn’t- wasn’t concerned with keeping Donovan in his comfort zone. And he was right- and resolute in his decision.
Donovan recently scored a goal in the All-Star game, was the All-Star game MVP, and has a very good chance to win another MLS Cup with the Galaxy. He will, if MLS has anything to say about it, go out on a high note just like George Costanza, but I for won will wonder what could have been if Donovan had been willing to give just that extra 5%?