Eight by Eight’s Andrew Helms went to Hartford last night to watch Landon Donovan’s final United States national team match. Now he says goodbye not only to Landon, but also to this moment in American soccer history.
I missed Landon’s swan song. Traffic leaving Boston stretched along the Mass Pike for nearly forty miles all the way to Worcester, and when we arrived at the stadium in the middle of the 2nd half, Landon’s cameo had already come to a tidy conclusion. The rest of the match proceeded as if under obligation, the motions being acted as though all the electricity had evaporated into the chilly October night.
After the match, the festivities resumed as a visibly emotional Landon started his obligatory victory lap. A hard-core contingent of American Outlaws remained in the stands for one final valediction, but eventually they too filtered out of the stadium, chugging final beers in the parking lot before heading to homes and hotels and highways. The traveling, Grateful Dead-like circus of U.S. Soccer exited Rentschler Field shortly after 11 p.m., leaving behind a drunkard’s flotsam in its wake alongside our own halcyon memories of America’s greatest ever soccer player.
Earlier this week, my Eight by Eight colleague, Robert Kehoe III, wrote that as much as we want to understand Landon, he remained an agonizingly unanswered question.
Kehoe’s right that we never understood Landon, but I would contend that Landon completely understood himself. We were just never satisfied with his decision. When Landon emerged, brash and bleached and the rising star of the 2002 World Cup, he inherited the mantle of an unfinished soccer nation. We forget that in those years MLS had recently retracted two teams and only the Columbus Crew had a soccer-specific stadium.
Into this fray, Landon became a vessel onto which we could project our imaginations of what soccer in America could become. For MLS-die hards, Landon’s decision to stay with the Los Angeles Galaxy and build the game at home became noble sacrifice for the greater good of the sport domestically. For national team partisans, Landon’s failures abroad, sabbatical, and spats with Jurgen Klinsmann will always pockmark an otherwise stellar career. For them, Landon was good, but he could have been great.
In truth, Landon could never satisfy either camp because Landon just wanted to be himself: skilled, selfish, humble, introspective, and a damn good soccer player. He refused to sublimate his identity to any one team or program. Managers that allowed Landon to drift in and out of games, measuring the ebbs and eddies of a defense before springing to action in an instant, were rewarded with a game-changer as recompense. Managers that demanded everything from him all the time got nothing.
There will never be another Landon Donovan in American soccer. There are too many players who are too good now to allow one preternaturally gifted athlete to dominate the domestic game for over a decade. And that is a good thing. We are better off now than we were twelve years ago, and that will forever be Landon Donovan’s greatest legacy.
While we will all miss Landon, I think what we will miss more was this moment in American soccer history. The field on which we played was as open as Algeria’s defense on that famous counter-attack in 2010, and we were able to shape this game into an institution that will extend beyond us in perpetuity. Sure there were moments of irritation and angst, but it was also really, really fun to shock the world with Yankee fight and spirit. Just as we watched Landon grow from a kid into a man, we also watched soccer in America weather the woes of adolescence and anxieties of youth.
In Hartford last night, Landon led a rousing rendition of “I Believe that We Will Win” with the lingering American Outlaws. But thanks to Landon, the game has already been won.