Goodbye, Landon Donovan

Landon Donovan played his last ever game for the U.S. Men’s National Team last night, starting and captaining the team through 41 minutes in what ended as a 1-1 draw with Ecuador. His career numbers for the national team are seriously astonishing in their volume and breadth, and the highlights make clear his quality, vision, pace, and work rate. He’s the best American player of all time, he’s been the public face of the sport for what seems like as long as he’s been playing, and he’s ending his career representing his country, representing us, as a near-universally respected figure. And deservedly so.

But it wasn’t always like that. The flack he took for failing to stick in Germany (twice at Leverkusen, once at Munich), for appearing to wither under pressure at the World Cup in 2006 (everybody forgets his and the team’s heroic performance against Italy), for spending almost the entirety of his career in MLS (is there any doubt after his two loan spells at Everton that he would have measured up just fine in the EPL?) was substantial and venomous.

When I started watching the national team, we weren’t really all that good. I have the haziest memories of us flaming out at France ’98, and I’m pretty sure I was at this rain-soaked draw with Ireland in 2000, but the first match I can distinctly recall is the 2-1 victory over Jamaica at Foxboro in October 2001 that put us through to the 2002 World Cup, and by then Donovan was already firmly in the side.* By the time the World Cup rolled around that spring I didn’t know anything about his youth career, or that he was still so young and unproven on the international stage. It was just, “Landon Donovan? He’s good – he starts.” I have no conception of pre-Donovan American soccer. As long as I’ve been watching, he’s been constant, universal, omnipresent as one of our best players in a way that nobody else has managed.

What’s changed is the program around him and the expectations it’s engendered. The surprising success of the 2002 World Cup and then the qualifying campaign for 2006 (Dos a Cero #2 and absolutely cruising the Hex) made it look like we might be able to assert ourselves as more than just CONCACAF powers, and of course Landon Donovan was the focal point. In between the two World Cups he’d already come back from Leverkusen a second time and his poor showing in Germany ’06 seemed to confirm the suspicions of those who thought he just couldn’t hack it outside MLS. For older generations of fans, who’d suffered through years of obscurity and ineptitude, the 2002 World Cup and Donovan’s performance in it must have come as something like salvation. Finally, a team that could compete on the world stage, and finally a player who could compete at the highest levels of the sport. And then all of a sudden Donovan is back in MLS and the U.S. is out in the group stages and it’s 1998 all over again (never mind the fact that we were the only side to take points off the eventual champions), and it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the anger subsequently directed at Donovan stemmed from some nebulous sense of bitterness at having had one’s hopes dashed again after seeing something that looked a bit like the light at the end of the tunnel.

For me that narrative never applied; as long as I’ve been watching the national team play the path has been one of slow, steady progress, punctuated with occasional stunning successes (2002, 2009 Confederations Cup) and occasional disappointing collapses (2006). I’ve benefited from feeling like I support an underdog without ever having to deal with the reality of supporting an actual one.** And so I never felt like Donovan somehow let me down, like he wasn’t living up to his potential, like he was failing to uphold his responsibility to American soccer. All the criticism – I never understood it. Which is why I was so happy for him when he thrashed his shot over a terrified Samir Handanović, why I was thrilled to see him score against Algeria, and why I was so pleased he got the sending off he deserved on Friday. I teared up watching his video tribute; I got chills listening to the chants of “thank you Landon” echoing through Rentschler Field – it was (from the fans at least; what was Klinsmann thinking taking him off so early?) a fitting recognition of all that he’s given to the team he’s played with for almost half his life.

And it was also one of those fleeting moments in which you get a vague sense of where you, temporally, are in the world. When Donovan was cut from the World Cup roster this summer it seemed odd to consider the possibility of watching us play at one without him, but there was always the (highly unlikely) possibility we’d see him in Russia four years later. Everybody knew getting cut was likely it for his international career, but it lacked Friday’s decisive finality. When he walked off the field in the 41st minute, that was it. One minute he was on the field, a player for the United States, and then all of a sudden he wasn’t. It was over. The United States will keep playing, and I will keep watching them, and for the first time in fourteen years there’s no chance Landon Donovan will be one of the 11 players on the pitch. The easy, enduring unity between my support for the team and its recipients was decisively broken in the 41st minute, and in that instant where the former kept going as the latter walked away, I got a vanishing glimpse of just how long fourteen years really is. And it’s enough to make me, at all of 25, feel just a little bit old.

*I know for sure I was at that one, because Joe-Max Moore scored in the 4th minute and we only heard it from outside the stadium – right after September 11th security was extra tight and getting into the stadium took even longer than usual
**Obviously we’re still an underdog against a lot of teams but, for example, getting to the World Cup isn’t really an achievement in itself anymore