Let me first say that so many pixels have already been lit over the imminent retirement of Landon Donovan the likelihood that my little contribution is going to break any new ground is absurd. I’m have nothing profound to add, nothing deep, no singular encounter with Landon-ness that altered me in any significant way. I’m only trying to defend my own somewhat less deifying and unapologetically banal opinion of Donovan, because on a podcast when asked to take my turn reminiscing on the impact of Landy on my soccer consciousness my mind went blank until I said “he just seems so normal”. Which is not what one is supposed to say about the preeminent American soccer player I realize, but it’s what came to mind first. Having gotten obsessed with soccer long before I got interested in American soccer I don’t feel the kind of possessiveness of it that I suppose I should and I get a kind of objectiveness that makes things look a bit more plain, a bit less shrouded in emotion, a bit more normal.
Landycakes is a normal good soccer player; he’s not great, he’s good. He is, to an outsized definition of “normal” that has easy access to every touch of La Liga, the Premiership, the Champions league, normal. He’s in the category of players who are good enough for numbers greater than 30 of the top 100 soccer teams in the world. That is still, to be sure, one of the top 0.01% (disclaimer: invented number) of people who play the game. If there is a group of kids picking 11 on 11 on a playground and Landon is one of the 22, he’s several hundred times better than the other 21. If he lives in my neighborhood and we have to go play the other neighborhood then he’s our champion. And in a way that’s what happens on a global scale. We still have our neighborhood that’s our side and we know who’s the best in our side. But instead of looking at the kids in the other neighborhood, we’re looking at a few thousand of the best kids in the world and our vision of ourselves is shaped in that. So Landon looks “normal” even though for a variety of reasons, he most certainly is not.
He’s nominally a midfielder often played as a withdrawn forward or a winger with no great appetite for the sideline but the truth is that he tended to play where he wanted with the insouciance granted by knowing he was usually the best player in his side at any given time. But then, so, a winger, sort of. Let’s think of great wingers from his time: Ryan Giggs, Cristiano Ronaldo, Arjen Robben. Comparing Landon to them seems cruel. If comparing him to wingers seems harsh the same would happen if we compared him to second strikers of the same era: Gianfranco Zola, Paolo Di Canio, Dennis Bergkamp? And that’s just England. So, we’ll pretend he’s a winger and sticking to the more familiar English Premier League and from his time we see Harry Kewell, Damien Duff, Aaron Lennon, James Milner, Kevin Mirallas. Is he the match of any of them? Perhaps not. He’s certainly not substantially better than any of them. And yet he is more extraordinary than any of them because of his nationality: he is an American, and that is extraordinary. Australian, Irish, English, English, Belgian; featuring fitfully for their national teams (Kewell because of injury), taking star turns on the odd moment but more than not appreciated but never idolized. He fits in perfectly amongst them. But, and here is the “but”, none of them helped build a league and create a national team.
In the time that spans his career he has seen American soccer go from passing curiosity to burgeoning nation obsession. And he did it all here, in this country and in this league that was and is often derided and often that derision is earned. Silly names, artificial turf, football lines, abject defending, tactical naivety, pointed lack of skill. He was a good American player when such a thing was patently bizarre. Playing for San Jose in front of an average of 9500 people in rarely televised games that passed far beneath the national consciousness in a league that struggled with identity, money, quality, and most important and elusive, with meaning. After his abortive stint at Leverkusen returning to the MLS, to his home country, to the style of the game that he knew and to the California that would make sense to him. How much more normal could one be? And how bizarre to decline the opportunity for regular visits to the Champions League, to the Allianz Arena, Westfalenstadion, Old Trafford, Camp Nou, the San Siro? To trade that for the cavernous indifference of a Gillette Stadium at 10% capacity, it boggles the mind and yet it does not. Normal people get homesick. Normal people do not enjoy going from being the best to being an after-thought.
He’s played on three teams, four if we’re to count Bayer Leverkusen for whom he features 7 times over 5 years. Bayer Leverkusen and their clean, family-friendly image; runners up in 4 of the 6 years before Donovan arrived, a club chasing but always eclipsed by Munich and Dortmund. Everton, one of the the more normal of EPL clubs in the era of outsized hyperbole and GDP-esque budgets in that league. A club with a pragmatic ethos, “The People’s Club”, particularly in the Moyes years. Most notable recently for their rivalry with the red side of Liverpool in what’s often called the friendliest derby in England. These two European interludes are less important than they might seem though, they don’t define him in the same way that the time other Americans have spent in Europe defines them. What’s far more important is his time in Major League Soccer.
Donovan had quite simply never been close to a regular in the first team at Leverkusen, not shocking given that the midfield consisted of Michael Ballack, Ze Roberto, Emerson and Bernd Schneider. To the Germans he was an experiment with no downside: no transfer fee, no internal pressure to play him, none of the national pressure to bring him through that they might face with a German prospect. To the Americans it was a desperate gambit: one of the first outfield players with a chance to grow into a side that featured regularly in European competition, in the home of Der Nationalmannschaft. And it was a failure. A failure for the national team and a victory for MLS because he was sent back on loan to San Jose, who were on 3 coaches in four playoff-less years when Donovan arrived in 2001. His three years there saw them take two titles, the last of which was to this day their last. I’m not going to pretend to know much about the San Jose team of that time because I, like the rest of the country, wasn’t paying attention. But I will say that I knew he was there and because of that I knew of San Jose and they were, during that time, one of four American teams of whom I had heard. He was the star of American soccer in MLS and, when former LA manager Alexi Lalas helped to dissolve San Jose and send Donovan back to LA, he was an irresistible narrative. Hometown boy made good.
But “Galaxy” never quite seemed to fit him. He and Beckham, the poor captain and teamate that Beckham was, didn’t quite fit together, does the “Hollywood LA” even fit? The guy from Ontario California, the Inland Empire, where the freight of the busiest port in North America passes through. He’s not a Hollywood guy but then, despite the aspirations of the league, “The LA Galaxy” are not in Hollywood, they’re in Carson. A small city of an infrastructural bridge between the Port of Los Angeles, the Aerospace industry, a conduit between the ports and the rest of America. Donovan could be a Carson guy, and since he’s gotten the captains armband back in 2009, he’s seemed to be, and the team has thrived with Donovan and kids from the outer reaches of Southland, sprinkled with Beckham and Keane. His partnership with Keane flourished because the two of them relished sprinting past the inept positional morass that typically passes for defending in MLS, slotting in simple balls, converting the penalties that panicked center backs gifted them time and time again. It’s not Hollywood glamour, it’s not chess, it’s not a highlight reel of a mazy run or spectacular acrobatics; it’s a simple game made simpler still. And yet, that simple game, a simple prosaic counter-attacking game, is what has helped prop up a league that was on the verge of failure in 2004, and what helped grow a league that has been ascendant ever since.
At the turn of the millennium the expectation was that the men’s national team would be there and that it would not be embarrassed and that no matter what happened it probably wasn’t really that big of a deal. It was just fun. Like with the kids: go out there and do your best. We’re proud of you. Completely absent from our relationship with our team is the fraught anxiety and inevitable bruising disappointment of England, the neurotic pomposity of Argentina, the rhapsody-inducing pressure-cooker of Brazil. Instead we have simply the sense that yes, we’re here too. Hi, we’re just having fun. And this is where we introduce, in 2000, the man who is to become our Figo, maybe our Zidane. We don’t know what he’ll become, we hope he’ll be great because we need a great player because that’s how the game works, isn’t it? (It’s not, unfortunately, but marketing can convince otherwise). In 2002 we are a nation that occasionally watches soccer on TV at odd hours when there aren’t other things on to watch or because your weird friend or the foreign exchange student wants to watch it. We make jokes about ties and 1-1 games. As time passes Donovan accrues the accolades, and the records, the respect, the endorsements, the video game covers, the Nike deals. And in this time we become a nation that, yes, we know some of the players on the national team, have an opinion on Messi or Ronaldo, know that there is a team playing in the next city over, understand the rudiments of the game to the degree that it is meaningful and entertaining. We are still perhaps puzzled by the 4-2-3-1, prone to write letters to the editor of the local paper that visiting fans at derbies use profanity, over-awed by banal analysis when delivered with an English accent. We are, as of yet, unformed, but we are undeniable potential. We have grown expectations and aspirations for how we will play and those have been sitting overwhelmingly on rather slight shoulders of Landon Donovan. By we, of course, I mean American soccer fans not the metaphorical “we” of the players on the field, but they too are a distant cry from the teams of ’02 and ’06. Not necessarily playing with what one would call “verve” per se, but attacking with some flair; over-reliant on goal-keeping acumen still but threatening in ways that can surprise. In the beginning it was inspiring not because of the play but because of the unglamorousness of it: you could never be Kobe Bryant or Peyton Manning because we already had those and we just don’t have room for more of them right now, thanks. The players were doing it because this is what they were given to do. By the end it was inspiring because we were now a regular fixture in the biggest sporting event in the world and it was “us”. It was the kids from our neighborhood alongside a few hundred of the best kids in the world. We wanted it have a national character, we wanted it to be a signification of national self, we actually cared. Would we have these demands without Landon? Probably not. And did Landon enjoyed having these demands foisted upon him? He did not.
Even his crowning moments with the national team underwhelm when taken out of context: an uncontested header at the far post against Mexico in ’02, a follow-up on a spilled ball against Algeria in ’10, these are the standard fare of a second forward. He, more than anyone else, defined the simplicity and guile-less attacking of the US. The stereotype of kids in the California sunshine who weren’t quite big enough for football or tall enough for basketball and lacked the single-minded freakish dedication of an Olympian. Running to run between defenders, lobbing quarterback like passes, declining to consider space and shape in attack, racing to recover in transition. Sides that ran and ran but never really ran at people and that outperformed expectations because there were no real expectations. Arena was supposedly fired because he failed to build on the Quarterfinal success of ’02 but truly, his teams were simply supposed to be more entertaining than the anemic product of ’06. Defensive naivety masked by running and work and more running, dogged solidity, and channel-sprinting counter attacks. But look, let’s be honest, even the thought of criticizing the style of play of the national team in 2000 is ridiculous. We’re not supposed to have character or a definition as a team. But we do and that character is formed by a normal player among other normal players. Now we have a baseline, an understanding, we may not know what is next, but we know what this is and we both like it and want more.
By the time he takes his break in 2013, he is unquestionably the US player, the American, at 31 in an MLS that he still hardly struggles to eviscerate even as his pace is deserting him. He takes a break because he’s tired of flying, tired of CONCACAF qualifying games played on cricket fields, tired of post-game aches and pains, tired of running, tired of hotels. He takes a break because, quite simply, he’s not insane. He’s not driven by demons or rabid fear of failure or an addiction to adoration or a childhood of deprivation in a favela or villa miseria. He’s a normal guy. He’s a normal guy who’s good at soccer and happens to be an American. Which means, to reiterate myself, that he is in no way just a normal guy. At the end of this year he’s going to retire and he will have had, what is by many metrics a very good career, and what is by any larger accounting of his career, one that I think should parallel any great because he not only helped to build a sport but he helped to define what it meant and show what a future it could have. Perhaps in 30 years we’ll have a moment as profoundly distinct as the Hand of God, as Dennis Bergkamps sublime flick and volley against Argentina in ’98, as 7-1 in the Maracana, as Uruguay in 1950, and we’ll have a career of rather normal plays that defined a team and an era to thank for it.