The beginning of the end was as classically Landon Donovan as everything, all of the years and wins and goals, that had come before it. The 32-year-old face of American soccer sat down in a natty suit and shirt – no tie, as usual – and spoke slowly and eloquently, unemotionally laying bare his deepest thoughts and feelings in Thursday afternoon’s press conference to announce his retirement at the end of the 2014 Major League Soccer season.
Donovan, who scored more goals in MLS and for the United States men’s national team than any other man and who was the rare domestic soccer player with mainstream name recognition, spoke of "a weight being lifted off of my shoulders."
His retirement was hardly surprising. Donovan, ever frank about his emotional state, had admitted to suffering from issues of motivation in the past and had gone on a months-long sabbatical from December 2012 through March 2013. For a decade and a half, Donovan was both American’s best player on the field and its sole ambassador off of it. And that burden understandably wore him down.
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"I think for the last few years I haven’t had the same passion I had previously in my career and to some extent I felt obligated to keep playing," he said. "So when that obligation part goes away, I realized I could just enjoy [the remainder of my final season]."
The sabbatical helped recharge him. But, said Donovan, "In the last few weeks I started thinking about [retiring] again. My gut just told me it was right, it was the right time."
You can hardly blame him, after a decade and a half as a professional, for wanting to do something else with his time. He spoke of spending it with his girlfriend, family and friends. He spoke of traveling. "At the end of the day I have to live the life I want to live," he said. "Just having the freedom to do what you want is very exciting."
It was all typical Donovan. It was an unconventional way of saying goodbye, at an unconventional age – most star players retire a few years later – to bookend an unconventional career. Because our memory of Donovan, while moored to many magnificent moments, will also be sort of complicated.
The central and conflicting duality in Donovan’s career narrative has been this: he was supposed to be the best, but he never went to test himself against the best. Or that’s his rap, anyway. Donovan went to Germany early, soon left for the cozier environs of MLS went back twice, couldn’t make it work, made his career in MLS, had two brief but much more successful stints in England with Everton and will retire stateside.
The knock on him is that he never stuck it out in Europe, even when he had the chance. After two failed Bundesliga stints with Bayer Leverkusen from 1999 through 2001 and the 2004/05 season and one with Bayern Munich in 2008/09, he was a hit with Everton in 2009/10 and 2011/12. In those short loan spells in England he was sufficiently impressive that he could surely have hung around the Premier League for some time. But he came home. He always came home. And many perceive that as Donovan leaving some of his potential untapped – of a lack of mental fortitude, even.
But Donovan always understood that he’d be happiest in his home state of California – playing for the San Jose Earthquakes and then the Los Angeles Galaxy – and that he’d serve the greater good better there. "I wanted to help grow the league," he said Thursday. "And I always thought it was much more important to be here doing that than to go be lost in the shuffle somewhere in Europe or elsewhere."
Some will write this off as a convenient explanation out of a certain professional cowardice. But tally and take account of all that Donovan did off the field in America and you wind up with a share in MLS’s ascent that cannot be overstated. Staying stateside may have been convenient, but it was also a kind of act of unselfishness, of service to his sport. MLS commissioner Don Garber believes the same. "There is no doubt that Major League Soccer would not be what it is today without Landon Donovan," he said in a statement. "Landon is to MLS what Michael Jordan was to the NBA, Wayne Gretzky was to the NFL and Tiger Woods was to the PGA Tour."
To wit, Donovan said that he’d announced his retirement in advance because he’d hate to put his club – one of the league’s flagship franchises – in a bind. "I wanted to let the Galaxy have the appropriate amount of time to work on what they want to do next," he said.
What the league as a whole – and soccer in America – does next will be bigger than the things it did before Donovan signed in 2001, when it teetered on the brink of collapse. The sport has grown in ways not even Donovan could have foreseen.
"I could not have envisioned that," he said.
Sometimes it’s hard to see how fast something is moving when you’re the one pushing it forward.