Donovan left imprint on U.S. soccer
Landon Donovan has always marched to the beat of his own drum, and it's an image he perpetuated on Thursday when he announced, at the ripe age of 32, that his playing career would come to an abrupt end at the conclusion of the MLS season.
Donovan's place in American soccer folklore is firmly cemented. There is no diminishing what he has achieved and what he has meant to the growth of soccer in the United States.
But to simply focus on those aspects of Donovan's career is to avoid the other side of the coin. His journey to stardom was, in fact, not a bed of roses.
Donovan entered the game on the back of the United States' embarrassing last- place finish at the 1998 World Cup. The national team needed a jolt, and Donovan, who turned professional in 1999 when he signed a contract with German club Bayer Leverkusen, appeared to be the necessary catalyst.
After having trouble adapting to life in Germany, Donovan secured a loan move to the San Jose Earthquakes in 2001 and proceeded to take MLS by storm, guiding the 'Quakes to MLS Cup glory in 2001 and once more in 2003.
Donovan faced some criticism for his eagerness to return home at the first sight of trouble abroad, but the move to San Jose paid dividends for the national team as he was able to carry his sublime form into the 2002 World Cup.
The United States shocked the world by advancing to the quarterfinals of the tournament, and Donovan was a major reason for the success. The then-20-year- old was dynamic going forward, scoring two goals and earning FIFA's Best Young Player of the World Cup award.
Bayer Leverkusen was keen to retain Donovan following the superb display, but after just seven games with the Bundesliga club, the American expressed his desire to return to the States. Leverkusen complied with the wish and he was dealt to the Los Angeles Galaxy, where he would see out the rest of his career.
Donovan, of course, would return to Europe years later. He signed a loan deal with Bayern Munich in 2009 to play under future U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann. Donovan's stint with the Bavarians ended much like his previous spells with Leverkusen as he struggled to acclimate, a foreshadow if there ever was one.
With a pair of failed stretches in Germany, as well as a pedestrian display in the 2006 World Cup that saw the U.S. bottom its group, it looked as if Donovan was developing a reputation for an inability to compete at the highest level.
But the Premier League came knocking in 2010, and Everton arranged a loan agreement with MLS for Donovan's services similar to Bayern's the year before. Donovan found great success with the Toffees, scoring two goals in 13 appearances across all competitions to garner Player of the Month honors.
Donovan would return to Everton on loan in 2012 and experience further success with the club, assisting on a handful of goals over the course of his nine appearances.
The string of positive performances begged the question why Donovan was not seeking a permanent move abroad. Perhaps he was soured by his poor experiences in Germany, but Donovan was content to compete in the cozy confines of his home state rather than test his prowess in some of the most competitive leagues in the world.
And it would not be the last time Donovan would be criticized for a career decision.
He took a self-imposed sabbatical from professional soccer following the 2012 season due to mental and physical exhaustion, a respite that cut into the beginning of the 2013 campaign.
The decision was met with some skepticism, namely from Klinsmann, who took over as U.S. national team coach in 2011. The former Germany international was in the midst of a World Cup qualifying effort when he was denied the services of one of the best players at his disposal for a reason he could not fully grasp.
Klinsmann allowed Donovan to work his way back into the national team picture by placing him on the Gold Cup roster, and while the Galaxy striker thrived in the tournament, it was clear that a bridge had been burned between player and coach.
Donovan was controversially left off the 2014 World Cup roster, a decision that, while seemingly cruel on the surface given the player's status in the American soccer pantheon, proved to be somewhat prophetic from Klinsmann. He knew Donovan was on the downslope of his career and he made the requisite adjustments for the good of the national team.
Throughout his tenure as U.S. national team coach, Klinsmann has stressed the value of players stepping out of their comfort zones. Donovan, though, does not seem to share the same ideal.
Donovan's accomplishments, both tangible and intangible, cannot be downplayed, but he's remained in MLS for the vast majority of his career at the expense of competing abroad to validate his ability as a professional player. It is neither right nor wrong, it is simply what makes his professional path unique.
His retirement revelation is consistent with that persuasion. At only 32 years old, Donovan should have plenty left in the tank, yet he feels as though it is the right time to step away from the game, undeterred by what others in the modern game indicate is correct.
He is nothing if he is not an individual, and Landon Donovan leaves the game in the same vein in which he has navigated it: on his own terms.