Landon Donovan will play his final international match tonight in Hartford. How will America look back on the greatest player it never understood?
Americans are by nature averse to questions. We prefer answers, and we’d like them now. So it’s ironic that as we celebrate the triumph of Landon Donovan’s career and his unquestionable place as America’s greatest player, he remains a question to us. And in reflecting on his remarkable career we”ll always ask, what might have been?
For me, that question began to form years ago when my club teammates would ask, “have you heard about this guy Landon Donovan?” He was, we thought, the first young American player who was good enough to make it big in Europe. By the time I arrived at college the questions my teammates and coaches were asking had changed. “Have you seen this guy Donovan play?”
I had, but until the United States’ shock victory over Portugal in the 2002 World Cup Donovan’s supremacy had never been so clearly delineated. He was so brash, so fast, so menacing, so good with the ball, and so blindly ambitious; at times it looked like he was playing in a weekend tournament in Southern California.
In the quarterfinals of that tournament, Germany struggled mightily to keep Donovan in check. He buzzed, floated, megged, and forced his way into the heart of their defense. If not for two brilliant saves from Oliver Kahn the young American’s left foot would have given the US a two-goal lead.
At that point, it seemed the only question was whether or not the sky was Donovan’s limit. That was a question that answered itself: He was the greatest player we’d ever seen wear the stars and stripes, and we expected the world from him. But instead of allowing Landon Donovan to be who he was—and let him become the player he was born to be—many resorted to more questions. Why didn’t he succeed in Germany with Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich? Why wasn’t his contribution to Major League Soccer greater, like his brief success with Everton in the English Premier League? Why wasn’t he what we wanted him to be?
One of Donovan’s great personal achievements was that no matter how many stupid questions he was asked, or how disappointing certain phases of his career may have been, he never let the pressure affect him, and he never resorted to meaningless answers. He was smart, funny, savvy and shrewd through it all, marching to the beat of his own drum in spite of all the noise around him. It wasn’t that he didn’t care what others thought. He just never made caring what they thought the source of his motivation.
Donovan knew he was good. He knew he was better than most of the players he faced. And when he came across those he knew were better than him, he was never afraid, which is what made him the quintessential American player: he was good and he just wanted to play, even to a tragic end.
That end became imminent on May 22nd. I still remember the text that came from my brother-in-law: “What do you think of Donovan being left off the team? Good?”
Looking back it’s hard to believe how immediately I dismissed the message. It was inconceivable that Landon Donovan wouldn’t play in his fourth World Cup when just a week before his dismissal both Tim Howard and Michael Bradley endorsed Donovan as instrumental to the team’s success in Brazil.
Puzzling as it was, it fit the paradox of triumph and tragedy that has marked Landon Donovan’s career. He goes to Germany and it doesn’t work. He dominates in MLS, but the pundits don’t respect MLS. He returns to Germany, and it doesn’t work again. He comes back to MLS, with the same casino online pundits recycling the same criticism. He’s a revelation at Everton one year, and doesn’t quite cut it the next. He scores the most iconic goal in US Soccer history, tells his estranged wife he loves her on national TV, and the couple files for divorce months later. He goes on sabbatical in Cambodia to get his mind right for one last go at the World Cup, gets his mind right, and…
And here we are, asking ourselves what might have been if Jurgen Klinsmann would have been okay with the idea that we Americans are happy to celebrate Gershwin at Lincoln Center. Sure, Beethoven at Die Berliner Philharmonie might be better, but wasn’t Gershwin pretty good? And wouldn’t America”s most decorated player have looked pretty good roaming in front of Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley for four matches in Brazil?
Maybe. But as triumphant as the US may have been in escaping the Group of Death the tragedy is that we’ll never know. We’ve come to the end, and it’s time to move on.
As a great German philosopher once mused, “the negative aspect of the idea of change moves us to sadness. It oppresses us to think that the richest forms and the finest manifestations of life must perish in history, and that we walk amidst the ruins of excellence.”
Back on May 22nd, it took me a while to respond to my brother-in-law’s question, and when I did all I could write was this: “Hard to say. For now, sad.”
Now, on October 10th we’ll all relive the memories together, and survey the ruins of excellence one more time. And while an October match, in Hartford, against Ecuador, without calling up many of Donovan’s chief allies, feels like a half-baked tribute, Landon Donovan has always been a question, not an answer, and such are the riches of history. So when it’s time for the final ovation I hope it goes on for a very long time. I hope the fans in Hartford stand tall, drowning out the tragedy of this final act with a collective voice of triumph, communicating just how enduring Landon Donovan”s legacy will surely be, how sad we are to see him go, and how hard it is to say goodbye.
Robert L. Kehoe III is a writer who lives with his wife and sons in Madison, Wisconsin. You can follow him on twitter @robertkehoe3.