For me, Landon Donovan has always been there. I started heavily watching soccer in 2005. It was the summer after my first year at Michigan and in preparation for the 2006 World Cup some friends and I decided what better way to prepare than to actually watch the sport. I had no idea what happened in a soccer match – match. They call them matches? – I didn’t know that passing the ball backwards could actually mean things could go forward. My favorite player at the time was Aaron Lennon largely because he was the tiniest of speed demons and that was a tactical skill that I could appreciate at the time. For me, Donovan would come later, but he was already there.
By the time I started watching soccer Landon Donovan was already a superstar. He had won two MLS Cups with San Jose and was on his way to a third with Los Angeles. While I was learning what a 4-4-2 was, Landon was already the face of US Soccer and had been named the “Best Young Player” at the 2002 World Cup. Living in Michigan at the time, with the two closest MLS clubs being in Columbus and Chicago – two cities I just couldn’t root for – I started rooting silently for the Galaxy in MLS – Tottenham Hotspur were already my team, Aaron Lennon and all – only because Donovan was there chipping in goals at an alarming rate and busy being the poster boy for the growing soccer culture in the States. As my soccer acumen slowly but surely increased, with it my respect for Donovan’s game grew. Donovan was pacey, one of the quickest players on the field at any time, but was one of the only Americans who could routinely beat an opponent 1v1, and was a technician on crosses and set pieces. He was also; it seemed, always in the right spot. He was always there.
When the 2006 World Cup came around I sat in my living room on East Jefferson Street with a few of my roommates to watch the US get knocked around on their way to an exit in the group stages. While many across the nation saw that as a defeat for US soccer, for me it was an awakening. Only games spent in Michigan Stadium had ever had that impact on me before. This was a team of Americans, playing a sport that we are supposed to be mediocre at, on the world stage, and representing our country with class. At least that year it didn’t matter at all that we had been throttled by the Czechs, what mattered was that passion, and at the center of that passion I put Landon Donovan.
In 2009 I moved to Portland, Oregon – Soccer City USA – immediately adopted the Portland Timbers as my club, ravenously attended every NASL match I could possibly get to, always in the Timbers Army, and geared up for the 2010 World Cup. For the opener versus England, myself and a cadre of friends rambled over to one of the many bars downtown that were showing the games at 4:30am Pacific time. We would line the bar and eat breakfast and at 7:30, when they started serving alcohol, we would get merry and rowdy and watch the US run the gauntlet of England, Slovenia and Algeria. For the Slovenia game my friends Ashley, Adam, Sean and I started the practice of “Shots for Goals” which, while not financially prudent for a grad student, we to this day maintain that our copious ingestion of alcohol helped turn the tide in the second half of that match. When the Algeria match came we knew the stakes, and watched as Algeria parked the bus defensively – I knew what this term meant now – and held for a draw not so they could advance, but so the United States couldn’t. Landon was there, he had scored a breathtaking goal against Slovenia on a seemingly impossible angle, but as the time ticked down, and shot after shot failed to ring true, the crowd slipped into a delirium of anticipation, horror, frenzy and dread. But Landon was there:
That day I hugged more strangers than I have at any other point in my life. Anybody who was bigger than me picked me up and shook me like a red, white and blue clad rag doll. I’m fairly certain I carried my friend around the bar on my shoulder. I don’t remember. It was surreal. It was one of the biggest moments in American sports history and at the center of that moment, at the center of the pile that constructed itself out of various American torsos and limbs at the corner flag, was Landon; his face erupting with the pure, unadulterated joy that most people reserve for their wedding days or the birth of their children. All of the countless years, months, weeks, days and hours that Landon Donovan had spent on a soccer pitch in his life had culminated spectacularly in a tap in goal that shook a largely still sleeping nation to its feet. In that moment Donovan was perfect. He was there.
In the clip that I’ve watched hundreds of times since watching it live one of the commentators, reacting to Tim Howard pointing up towards God, remarks “yeah, praise to the heavens.” The heavens had nothing to do with it. This was Landon Donovan carrying a still identity-stricken soccer nation on his back, kicking and screaming, into the limelight of the world like he had been doing for most of a decade. In his post-match interview he cried. He cried and when asked about a disallowed Clint Dempsey goal earlier in the match Landon Donovan’s answer was “we embody what Americans are about.”
I watched the 2014 World Cup, and it was breathtaking and heartbreaking and despite the loss to Belgium it felt like progress for a national team that is still, despite its long track record, trying to find its national soccer identity. There were rallies not just in cities like Chicago and LA, but also in Kansas City, San Francisco and Portland. That Landon Donovan was one of the critical pieces that built that frenzy and emotion and that he wasn’t permitted to play in Brazil felt like a cruel joke. Landon did some cameos on ESPN and very pointedly said that he deserved to be at the World Cup and he was right. Even if it were a swan song on a brilliant career, Landon deserved to be there.
But let us as a soccer nation not dwell on that. Let us, tonight, as Landon Donovan makes his last appearance in the colors of our country, watch reverently as the best player to ever play for the United States, its career leader in goals, assists and World Cup tallies, takes one last bow. Donovan might not cry this time; he might wave to the crowd and take a seat on the bench, and that will be all. But as Americans, as fans of the game, many of us who came into its light because of Donovan’s heroics, let us remember that when it mattered, Landon was always there.