Landon Donovan said everything he wanted to say with the smile etched on his face this week. He looked and sounded utterly content as he discussed the events unfolding around him. He relished the opportunity to participate in the MLS All-Star Game for one last time with full knowledge of the revelation to follow on Thursday.
Donovan spent much of his career, much of his life searching for equilibrium and happiness. His decision to step away from the game at the tender age of 32 provided it. And it showed.
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“I’m trying to enjoy myself right now,” Donovan said after he scored the game-winning goal in his 14th and presumably final MLS All-Star Game. “The summer was very tough for me. I’m trying to enjoy playing. In the last four games I’ve been a part of, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. I think when I enjoy it. I play better. It was a good moment.”
The drive to find that inner peace led Donovan through his unorthodox journey. He excelled as a youth player and won a contract at Bayer Leverkusen, but he yearned for a chance to thrive in the California sun instead. His ability provided him with an opportunity to reach the very highest levels, but he selected to build the game in his home country instead.
Donovan’s motivations inspired criticism throughout his career. He always drew considerable scrutiny because he performed to such a high standard for club and country and stood out as perhaps the best American to ever play this game. He never pursued the path everyone wanted him to follow. He dabbled in Europe with a miserable loan spell at Bayern Munich and a pair of far more successful interludes at Everton, but he always wanted to return to his base in MLS.
His grasp of what made him happy led him to take a sabbatical last year and ultimately cost him dearly this year. He missed out on a chance to play at a fourth World Cup because he did not fit within the expectations imposed on him by others. It stung him bitterly, but it may have placed things in perspective, too.
It took a bit of time, but Donovan located the joy in his game yet again. The burst of pace he always boasted isn’t quite there any more, but the intelligence and the tactical ability endures. He focused his footing with the Galaxy and grasped the chance to make his appearance at one last All-Star game to provide the cap.
The exchange between Donovan and Thierry Henry — one man entering the game knowing his retirement beckoned, the other departing it with everyone acknowledging his likely exit — early in the second half of the All-Stars’ 2-1 victory over Bayern Munich makes all the more sense now. Donovan — always with a sense of the moment with his own departure imminent — struck the winner with his trademark instincts to underscore why he departs as the leading scorer in both domestic and international play for his country.
It isn’t quite right to boil Donovan down to a set of numbers or a list of achievements, though. He is far more complicated than his accomplishments. His role is far more expansive than those mere facts, too. His seminal moments — the decision to return to MLS and stick with the league as it emerged from near disaster, the stunning winner he scored against Algeria four years ago — capture him a bit better, but his lasting impact on the sport itself will ultimately serve as his legacy.
The past few days in Portland reflected the growth Donovan nurtured during his career. He knew he wanted to stay in MLS and he used his enduring star power to construct something durable from something barely viable. His occasionally peripheral role in the proceedings in Portland underscored the success of those endeavors. It is no longer just about him. It is about something far greater indeed.
“This week, I enjoyed quite a bit,” Donovan said. “I had a lot of fun. The fans are great here. In ’01, in my first All-Star Game in San Jose, we would walk out of the hotel, walk around the city and nobody bothered you, nobody knew who you were. Here, there are people littered around the lobby, there’s people standing outside, following guys everywhere. They want their autographs. They all know who you are. They watched the World Cup this summer. The game has changed so much. I’m really proud that I can be a part of it.”
He will play a role in continuing the evolution after he retires, but his job here is completed. This transition allows him to step away at the end of this season and move into the next phase of his life. It is a choice that is his and his alone. It is one he makes with a greater purpose in mind. And it is one that has left him to enjoy the moments he has left before he concludes his career for good.