Aug 7, 2014, 5:02 PM EDT
PORTLAND, Ore. — “Yes, I have played in games like that before,” he quipped, jumping on my mistake while trying to defuse the question. After MLS’s victory in a contentious All-Star Game, I’d asked about the second half’s intensity – a tone that drew the ire of Pep Guardiola. When I didn’t specify “All-Star Games” (merely asking about “games”), Donovan seized on the moment.
It’s the latest version of the story we’ve heard over the last five years: Landon Donovan just is not the same person. As a young player cast into the heat of U.S. Soccer’s (then) narrow spotlight, Donovan played the part of the reserved icon – a clichéd role that would prove soul-sucking for all but the grotesquely cynical.
Now, he can joke. He can prod. He can seize on a slip at the end of an interview. Maturation and changes in his personal life caused a turn four years ago. What emerged from an emotional World Cup and some time away from the game was an honesty that was refreshing from such an entrenched star.
[ RELATED: Donovan to retire at the end of the 2014 season ]
If Donovan was cautious before, perhaps rightly concerned his views that would be dissected ad nauseam, the new Landon was more confident: comfortable correcting a false assumption; personable enough to avoid offense. He was endearing enough to win misgiven hearts, yet flawed enough to endear empathy. If the media’s fawned over the new man, they weren’t the only ones. Everybody could empathize with the new Landon Donovan.
He is now an elder statesman, as much as any 32-year-old could ever be. He could pass judgment on the landscape with the authority of a legend, one whose honesty and fairness underscored his transformation. Whereas the pro forma approach of his prime showed greater deference, Donovan had evolved into a voice. Right or wrong, he had earned our trust.
That was most evident in May, when he was excluded from what could have been his last World Cup. As the U.S. soccer world exploded around him — expressing the rage of a fanbase that’d followed him into their own soccer primes — Donovan presented calm, even while expressing clear dissent.
No, he didn’t see the same world as Jurgen Klinsmann, and yes, he thought he should be in Brazil. But he wasn’t going to lead a revolt. It was just the latest, albeit unfortunate, stop along his road, one that wouldn’t stop him from being the clear, open player he’d evolved into. I’m not going to Brazil, and that’s heart-breaking, but tomorrow comes, regardless.
[ RELATED: Open letter explains Donovan’s retirement ]
There’ll be a lot of talk about that World Cup snub. Donovan may downplay its part, but don’t be too cynical when he does. For as much as his international self was part of his identify, it’s hard to reconcile a Donovan that wants to play soccer walking away merely because of a diminished role with the U.S. Though the World Cup was an obvious goal, playing for the national team hasn’t been a significant part of his life since returning from Cambodia. At some level, while being a “mere” All-Star for Los Angeles, Donovan just wanted to play soccer.
And now, he doesn’t. At least, he doesn’t want to play as much. Turning 33 next March, Donovan’s decision may be less about the U.S. and more about what’s left to accomplish. More MLS Cups? Another few All-Star Games? More records, though he already has the league’s most prestigious ones? At what point does the treadmill break down? In that light, he may have called time on his career after the World Cup regardless.
For today’s Donovan, there are other things to do. There’s family. There’s travel. There’s a life without all the externalities of a professional’s existence. For the most famous player in U.S. soccer history, there’s a whole other part of the soccer world, one he may not have recognized five years ago.
For the person he’s become, the person that’s already checked off so many boxes in that soccer world, it’s time to move on. That he wants to should be reason enough for us.
Mar 28, 2015, 11:30 PM EDT
Catch up on all the action from Week 4 of the MLS season.
Mar 28, 2015, 10:41 PM EDT
A disappointing result for FCD, given Seattle’s lack of Dempsey and Martins, but a great one considering their early red card.
Mar 28, 2015, 10:06 PM EDT
Three more points for Vancouver, who win it late on Robert Earnshaw’s Whitecaps debut. He scores for everyone.
Mar 28, 2015, 9:15 PM EDT
It was the late, late, late show at RFK Stadium, and despite being thoroughly outplayed, D.C. United go home with three points.
Mar 28, 2015, 9:04 PM EDT
Sporting KC get their first victory of the season, while NYCFC suffer their first defeat of the year — and history.
Mar 28, 2015, 6:30 PM EDT
It wasn’t a great day to be a traditional European giant, but it was a great day to be Gareth Bale and Wales.
Mar 28, 2015, 5:00 PM EDT
A dominant performance — and the three points to match — from the Revs…finally.
Mar 28, 2015, 4:30 PM EDT
Think that MLS playing through int’l windows isn’t a big deal? Let’s ask Orlando City what they think about it.
Mar 28, 2015, 2:50 PM EDT
Campbell was capped 73 times, and is England’s second-youngest captain. Clearly he knows that, too.
Mar 28, 2015, 1:39 PM EDT
The Canaries finished in 7th place last season in the Veikkausliiga, Finland’s top-flight.
Mar 28, 2015, 12:54 PM EDT
Should the States’ losses in friendlies represent anything other than a concern at the lack of US youth readiness for the big stage?
Mar 28, 2015, 12:08 PM EDT
This likely comes as a surprise to Liverpool fans, as Johnson is widely treated rightly or wrongly as a scapegoat by Reds supporters.
Mar 28, 2015, 10:37 AM EDT
Does the embattled USMNT coach have a point? I’m again bracing for the comment section when I say… I think so.
Mar 28, 2015, 7:55 AM EDT
The States are 1-4 in their last five matches, all four coming on the road (Colombia, Ireland, Chile and Denmark).
Mar 27, 2015, 11:35 PM EDT
Roundup of Euro 2016 qualifying matches from Saturday.
Mar 27, 2015, 10:00 PM EDT
Both Danny Welbeck and Raheem Sterling will most likely be out of England’s friendly vs. Italy on Tuesday.
Mar 27, 2015, 8:52 PM EDT
Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahmovic buries a strange one.
- MLS Snapshot: FC Dallas 0-0 Seattle Sounders 0
- MLS Snapshot: Vancouver Whitecaps 2-1 Portland Timbers 0
- MLS Snapshot: D.C. United 1-0 LA Galaxy 1
- MLS Snapshot: New York City FC 0-1 Sporting Kansas City 2
- EURO 2016 qualifying roundup: Netherlands, Italy rescue draws; Bale, Wales go top 1
- Klinsmann’s USMNT struggles, experimentation in friendlies: Does it really matter? 4