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.
Jul 5, 2015, 7:16 PM EDT
Inter Milan released a statement defending itself as Fiorentina vice president Paolo Panerai criticized his rival in the midst of Mohamed Salah’s transfer situation.
Jul 5, 2015, 6:14 PM EDT
Watch the Women’s World Cup final live online. Kickoff at 7 p.m. ET.
Jul 5, 2015, 4:45 PM EDT
After having his contract terminated for violence with match security, Emir Spahic will play for Hamburger SV next season.
Jul 5, 2015, 4:03 PM EDT
Despite Sergio Ramos’ transfer being heavily linked to Manchester United, rival Andres Iniesta believes the defender is going nowhere.
Jul 5, 2015, 3:10 PM EDT
The Indian Super League continues to bring in the big names.
Jul 5, 2015, 2:22 PM EDT
After three stints managing the Super Eagles, Stephen Keshi is out once again.
Jul 5, 2015, 1:35 PM EDT
The U.S. defense has been unbreakable, and Japan loves to keep the ball. Something has to give in the final.
Jul 5, 2015, 1:15 PM EDT
After making some tactical changes at the break, Micronesia held Fiji to just 17 second half goals.
Jul 5, 2015, 12:21 PM EDT
After another brutal loss in a major tournament final, Argentina’s Javier Mascherano couldn’t explain what went wrong.
Jul 5, 2015, 11:25 AM EDT
Catch up on all six of Saturday night’s MLS matches, right here.
Jul 5, 2015, 10:27 AM EDT
It may be Sunday, but transfer gossip doesn’t take weekends off.
Jul 5, 2015, 9:30 AM EDT
At 32 years of age, Sampson impressed many by leading England to a third-place finish in the Women’s World Cup.
Jul 5, 2015, 8:34 AM EDT
Sepp’s not going down without a fight, now bringing major political leaders into the mix.
Jul 5, 2015, 7:44 AM EDT
On the Fourth of July, there were fireworks all across Major League Soccer.
Jul 5, 2015, 7:40 AM EDT
Both countries hope that this final will help bring further attention to the women’s game.
Jul 5, 2015, 4:51 AM EDT
Olympic gold medals are great, but this group wants a World Cup title.
Jul 4, 2015, 11:23 PM EDT
On a day where Laura Bassett showed great resolve, England won over many neutrals.
Jul 4, 2015, 10:30 PM EDT
The U.S. hasn’t given up a goal in 513 minutes at this World Cup, heading into the final against Japan.
Jul 4, 2015, 10:00 PM EDT
Kei Kamara -> Ethan Finlay (x2) was all Crew SC needed to jump three places in the Eastern Conference.
Jul 4, 2015, 9:20 PM EDT
Eduaro Vargas and Paolo Guerrero beat all the big names to the 2015 Copa America top scorer’s award.
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