Most Americans go to Montego Bay for a get-away. In 1999, I was at this Jamaican resort town for reasons that had nothing to do with sun and sand. Montego Bay was the site of CONCACAF qualifying for the upcoming FIFA U-17 World Cup and the United States had a special team that featured a kid named Landon Donovan.
Although the tournament media tent at the cricket ground was hardly packed, it was obvious that most who had come to this usually anonymous tournament were there to see what Donovan and his teammates could do. There were even some college coaches in attendance, although they were the first to tell you they were looking at the rest of the American team. That was because everyone already knew that the prodigy developed in the inaugural class of the United States’ IMG Academy training site was headed directly to the pros.
Flash forward to Thursday where the 32-year-old announced he will retire from professional soccer at the end of the MLS season, wrapping up the most prolific career in the league’s history with one last run at a championship with the LA Galaxy. ”I think for the last few years, I haven’t had the same passion that I had previously in my career,” Donovan admitted in a press conference on Thursday. ”To some extent, I had felt obligated to keep playing. … It’s time to enjoy the rest of the season, and there would be no better way than to go out as a champion, so that’s what I want to do.”
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Though Donovan didn’t set that Montego Bay tournament alight back in 1999, the United States still qualified for the finals in New Zealand. It was clear that he was the first truly special young American to come through the ranks of a then-nascent development program. He had time on the ball, saw the field, anticipated the runs of his teammates and was quickly able to make decisions. All that bore fruit in New Zealand where he won the Golden Ball in the 1999, edging teammate DaMarcus Beasley, then a quicksilver forward.
Donovan started against Portugal in the opening game in South Korea, and it was his cross in the first half that was deflected home for a vital own-goal that staked the Americans to an unexpected 2-0 advantage before a half hour had been played. Donovan got his first World Cup goal in the 3-1 loss against Poland, then drove the nail into the Mexico coffin the Round of 16 American win. Brian McBride opened the account that afternoon as the USA rode to their quarterfinal date with Germany.
Donovan’s versatility made him especially important at the top level and may also have led to criticism at club level. Perhaps being the first American player with the technique and touch to master the toughest part of the game may also have created a player who never quite fitted into one of the game’s well-defined roles.
Donovan has never been a pure striker, never a pure midfielder and hardly a holding player. Instead, like the great Bulgarian Hristo Stoichkov, Donovan has always been best at finding his place in a game, slotting himself into the spots where his teammates can find him, positions that sometimes defy "positional" description. That was noticeable as far back as those Under-17 days when it was already clear that Beckerman, for example, was a central midfielder and Beasley, in those days, an attacker who could come off either wing, run the endline and both create and score.
Donovan, however, was not so easily described; at times he seemed to be a midfielder, working to create for others; at times, a forward running to receive balls that he could quickly control, then turn on; and, at times, you wouldn’t see him at all. He wasn’t winning rustic tackles and he was rarely expected to produce the kind of lung-bursting runs that defined a player like Joe-Max Moore.
What Donovan did was influence games and win them quite often. He was so good at that that Arena turned to him after the 2002 World Cup success as centerpiece of future national teams. That, frankly, was too much, too soon. But Donovan accepted his role as both team captain and team spokesman. He even perfected his Spanish so that he could better serve the soccer community, vitally important at a time when the Spanish-language media usually outnumbered those of us writing or broadcasting in English.
Much will be said about the fact that Donovan didn’t build a brilliant overseas career off his success in 1999. He went to Bayer Leverkusen but played for San Jose on loan for most of that German tenure. He had a less-than-memorable spell with Bayern Munich in 2009, then featured prominently in a pair of loan stays with Everton, but by then he was an MLS man through and through. His return to Major League Soccer — and the move from San Jose to Los Angeles in 2005 — defines his career as much as the 2010 World Cup goal against Algeria, and it is poetic justice that he scored the match-winner in what will have been his final MLS All-Star game.
There will always be those who believe Donovan had more to deliver on the world club stage. Others will say that his decision to stay in the United States through MLS’s growing pains adds more to his stature than his international achievements as MLS commissioner Don Garber was quick to attest to on Thursday.
"There is no doubt that Major League Soccer would not be what it is today without Landon Donovan," said Garber in a released statement. "His decision to join MLS in 2001 was a statement to the entire soccer community, at the most crucial time in our history, that MLS could be a league of choice for the best American players. Landon is to MLS, what Michael Jordan was to the NBA, Wayne Gretzky was to the NHL and Tiger Woods was to the PGA Tour; a player who’s sporting accomplishments and popularity transformed their respective leagues and set a new standard for how the game would be played."
Many were quick to criticize Jurgen Klinsmann for omitting Donovan from this summer’s World Cup. In retrospect, the national team had changed more than he did. What struck you in 1999 remains the same: A player with quick, short steps and a change of pace doing the unexpected to win a match. And that, ultimately, became his signature.
”Sometimes there’s a sense of obligation in people’s lives, the sense that you have to do something,” Donovan said. ”I’ve never lived that way. I have to live the life I want to live, and that’s an important thing to go by.”