But I Loved That Band: The Sunsetting Of Landon Donovan

The insecurities, finally and truly, are so unbecoming.

The pulsing signal became stronger this week.

The splash of light beyond the tunnel, the dark corridor adjusting the iris further.

What started out as peripheral and inconclusive signs–poor to absent early season play, missed national team matches–and rolled into suggestive interviews finally landed this week in an interview with ESPN.

The era of Landon Donovan–or at least Landon Donovan 1.0 (or 3.0 if you are measuring by World Cup terms)–appears to be sunsetting.

But who else?

It’s an existential moment, as much for Donovan as for the fans who grew accustomed to, demanded more and at times became bored with the single player synonymous with the US soccer ecosystem–from the domestic league, comparisons to the global game, and the national team.

It’s a somber graduation of sorts, not unlike when your favorite band finally chucks its last over-notched drumstick into the crowd at the encore–at once there is a sense of loss, an artificial mourning period that’s immediately buoyed by personal reflection, nostalgia and wistfulness of “what you both accomplished together.”

I’ll never feel quite that way about another band again.

And that part is patently true.

There will be more bands and they’ll be good and burn up the earbuds and force us to find rhythm at concerts. But it won’t be the same.

I’ll always have Phish at Madison Square Garden in 1995; Radiohead, Santa Barbara 2008. Many will also have Landon Donovan, Germany, 2002; Donovan, Slovenia, 2010.

Such is the parallel of Donovan to the US and a coming of age soccer existence.

One could argue that without the “possibilities of Donovan,” US soccer never burrows into the American conscience quite as quickly and gets its true “start;” it’s big promo deal, so to speak, after the faulty performance of 1998.

The US, of course, tumbled out of that 1998 World Cup on the heels of internal conflict, miscalculation and a misplaced, unready–though not untalented–frontman in Claudio Reyna. (Not that Reyna wasn’t a terrific player, but he wasn’t the showy frontman the media and leadership starved for.)

Donovan’s insertion into the US scene needs to be looked at even more broadly.

Throw out everything before 1988. Those were the early years, the finding of the relationship, the settling in period of the sports landscape to a new relationship with a new sport. US fans moving in with soccer.

Everything changed with an announcement on July 5th, 1988; the US would host the 1994 World Cup. The moment would be the true birth of mainstream soccer here. Everything leading up to it, it’s pregnancy. Seeding and nesting of interest and fans.

The gulp of years that made up 1990s, including the life moment of 1994 were a sense of wonderment and challenge; more filled with providing a foundation than true coming of age; a toddler discovering words, taking their first steps. The “we’re-just-excited-to-be here” thing.

Getting comfortable in who you are, finding yourself, is for everyone…

The dawn of the 2000’s–after that failure–didn’t see US soccer at a crossroads so much as intrigue as to who it really was. It was the adolescence of the sport in the States …. and like that gawky, awkward, unsure and overall insecure teenager it was searching for who it would be. It would always get older, but how would it blossom.

And it needed something to hold on to, to believe in.

Something that its fans strewn across the States in big and little pockets could relate to. And it wasn’t MLS yet, not nearly.

And like Joey Ramone, Marilyn Manson, Dr. Dre, Prince, Kurt Cobain and more all did for kids of a different ilk; Landon Donovan did for the US soccer fan.

His first act was as raw, as powerful and as unconstructed you can be. World Cup 2002.

Donovan played for the mass populace in front of packed stadiums in a far away land, banging out tantalizing scoring riffs and thrilling the critics.

If you had been a fan and watching through qualification then you claimed him. And claimed him rightfully and loudly.

“I f*cking told you about this kid. I TOLD YOU ABOUT THIS KID! Won a championship with the Earthquakes.”

“The who? The earthquakes?”

“Nevermind. He’s f*cking good man. He can play in Europe. Landon, f*cking Donovan!”

No pulling down this kid….at least in 2002.

He didn’t let down. Donovan took on the Iberian sophisticates of Portugal and consistently threatened with the supporting ensemble all through the rest of the group stages–at least that’s how it would be remembered through the omnipresent media eager to gobble up the tale.

The US knocked off Mexico in a shocking and definitive fashion and boy was that creamy because not only did we have this little kid zig-zagging up and down the field firing bullets, but now he just knocked off the incumbent. Salivating became full-on drool when Germany would be the next opponent as copy about “Could the US go all the way?” seeped into American sports broadcasts.

And while the US was served a ticket home by Die Mannschaft, it was coming home with momentum. Amazingly, it wasn’t even momentum born out of success but a glimpse of unfinished scoring opportunities that was enough to capitivate a nation, instill imagination.

And you, well you, were riding with the man who would be king.

You knew his stats, his history. Kid played in Germany, the details of which did not matter. Donovan’s success was your success, your reward for the effort necessary to stick with US soccer as only the league and those bent on merchandise and ratings cajoled you to hang around a times.

If Donovan had went away a one-hit wonder, he still would have been worth it for the domestic game.

As seasons go, the Summer of 2002 reluctantly gave way to the Fall of 2006. In between, Donovan would tear up the domestic league, flirt with, but ultimately struggle, to find success overseas and continue to prop up the game in the States.

Unless you were a super fan rummaging to the far reaches of the Internet, US Soccer was Landon Donovan and vice versa. That another twinkle-toed youngster was off playing in Europe’s best clubs tournament, UEFA Champion’s League, didn’t even register. Didn’t even register, sorry DeMarcus your diamond wasn’t mined.

Such was the conjoining of Donovan and America.

When 2006 came around, it wasn’t just going to be just Donovan’s moment. It was going to be yours. Your slightly-faded, clearly worn USA jersey was all ready to go. You were a Donovan original.

2006 may have had the advent of Clint Dempsey, the last visage of Brian McBride going toe-to-toe with “the dirty Italians,” something about another fair-haired kid named Bobby Convey, the phantom Onyewu foul, Reyna’s knee crumble and more, but it was Donovan’s absence and his subsequent questioning that crushed those who had waited for years to be the cool kid again amongst their friends.

Donovan was finding himself or he was defining himself somewhere in the spectrum between A-Rod and Jeter. He was the American to spotlight, but that spotlight illuminated blemsishes. Cobain had internal conflict and turned to drugs; Donovan’s internal conflict manifested in an ozone of perceived xenophobia around foreign football and a sensitive immature side.

The narrative after 2006 around Donovan became less The Messiah and more The Mecurial. 2002 had been so perfect; that 2006 fell short because of lack of mental toughness rather than talent was jolting.

So when 2010 came around–and thank goodness for a US victory over Spain that propped up the proletariat–the ubers and the casual didn’t know what to expect. The broad narrative became something to the effect of “Donovan doing it on the big stage.”

And ironically enough–though Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley were the best players for the States–it was Donovan who chiseled out the two lasting visuals of the Cup run, drove the YouTube views berserk and in the process re-established himself .

His “statement-made” acute-angled smash against Slovenia that meant as much as a goal can beyond the scoreboard and his clean-up on aisle Algeria that rescued the US from group stage failure and USSF from explanations. In fact, when you consider months later that Sunil Gulati prevailed over an always-would-be-damned World Cup bid that fell far short to the furthest thing from a global power, Donovan’s Algeria punch maintained some salvation.

So now more than two years later, Donovan, either spent or through the niggling need to be pampered that casually but perhaps accurately dogs him, is posturing that is time to move on.

And it sounds real.

Many will chide his decision, incredulous how the gift of talent and fame with the mere price of scrutiny can be tossed away well, well before Brett Favre jokes. Others will say good riddance.

But for the gawky kids who searched for the soccer savant when few were to be found, whether the final performances were mundane or not, they’ll wistfully remember the times that Landon brought the house down and in the process built a temple.

And the time is apropos, if it in fact is nigh.

US players dot the statistical leader boards of leagues around the World. Transfer fees are now paid, nay, negotiated for up-and-comers. The insecurity that came with labeling yourself a US soccer fan or better having to defend the States in the face of “beautiful game” criticism. There are more Landons on the way. And you’ll watch and listen to them.

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34 responses to this post.

  1. Very good. Thanks for sharing. I was having a similar discussion yesterday about LD. I would love to see him go and retire in the EPL.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Nate on 2012/10/26 at 6:02 PM

    Really think he needs to go to Everton in some way and finish out there. I would guess it’s not about the money anymore. If he’s going to play it’ll be where he feels the passion again, and that’s at Goodison. After all these years of what he has done for US Soccer and the MLS, Gulati and Garber should try to make that happen.

    People talk about him losing a step, and while some of that is inevitable with all the mileage he’s put on that body, his soccer intelligence hasn’t dropped at all. He can still make that great pass which so often can win a game.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Giggity on 2012/10/26 at 6:08 PM

    Great article

    Reply

  4. Posted by Paul on 2012/10/26 at 7:56 PM

    I want to read and like this article but you mixed up your dates so badly in the beginning that it really distracted from the point you were trying to make.

    I’m not trying to be a dick, but just say that it was very confusing trying to figure out if you really meant 1988 or 1998 or not.

    Reply

  5. Ok… I skimmed the article. Sorry. I’m sure its great but I’m in the “On to the Next one” category in finding not just one player but players to start rooting for in the Red, White and Blue. Mr. D wants to move on. That is fine even though I’m not thrilled about a guy moving on with 1 last chance to go to the big event because lets face it… World Cup is the mecca of futbol not the MLS championship OR even the EPL championship.

    I’ve moved on to Bradley, Fabian Johnson, Danny Williams and others that will lead the Red, White and Blue from this point on. Thanks for the memories Donovan and good luck in what you do. You’ve never been my favorite but I can’t argue your skills and records.

    Reply

  6. Posted by Kay20 on 2012/10/27 at 3:39 AM

    While I in general agree with the connections made in your article Matt with the history of the game, you have an air of dislike and “he’s overrated” in this article when it comes to LD – which takes away from your post imo. I would have liked somewhere in your post for you to recognize his lasting legacy on US soccer through his talent, unbelievable stats and his ambition – yes, ambition – to take MLS to the next level and the USMNT too. Instead this article has an aura of grudging recognition almost like he tripped on success from 2006-2010.

    There will be more Landon’s coming, but they are not yet around the corner, and I suspect Landon’s stats will hold up for **decades**.

    As LD prepares for retirement (which I think will not come next year and instead a move to Everton) I wish a lot of the articles would have just said “thanks” instead of the countless articles I’ve read once again rehashing his early career decisions (in their words, failures).

    “Many will chide his decision…many will say good riddance.” Many will also say – he’s a legend, thanks for playing for us, it’s been a privilege to watch you play. And you never know what you had till it’s gone.

    Reply

    • Kay20,

      It’s fashionable to be ambivalent leaning toward dismissive about LD.

      “There will be more Donovan’s coming”

      Really? I’m not so sure. Players as good as LD are not as common place as you think
      Donovan was a star at the age of 20, on arguably the best US World Cup team ever, in the 2002 World Cup.

      This from a kid whose only previous experience was the IMG academy, various US youth teams and Leverkusen 2. If Gatt is a star and reaches the same heights as LD did, at the 2014 World Cup he will be about 22 and have had much more pro first team experience.
      I was never the biggest Donovan fan but it will be quite a while before the US finds another player who is as dangerous, talented, exceptional and productive as LD.

      Reply

      • Posted by Kay20 on 2012/10/28 at 12:46 AM

        Thanks schmutzdeck. Your post is what I appreciate. You might not be the biggest fan ever, but you appreciate his contributions and talent. Great post.

        I hope he gets a few more games to hit the 50/50 mark – which would make him the first player in history to do so for their national team.

        Reply

  7. Posted by dikranovich on 2012/10/27 at 6:53 AM

    landycakes, landycakes, landycakes. the truth is, donovan only gets one go around. you have to make the most of it, while it is still there to be made, so you dont look back with regret as to what could have been. and, you cant change the past. onwards and upwards mr. donovan.

    Reply

  8. Posted by Gregorio on 2012/10/27 at 10:46 AM

    Pfeh, I think that the back & forth on Landon can be summed up ala Mark Twain ” reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”. Landon at this point is uninspired but I believe he will play on for the USA because people, half his heart will tell him, expect him to cite the usual ” its an honor to represent one’s country.or when you put on the shirt”. And all of these may seem disingenous and maybe spot on, but once in the heat of battle without the clouded thoughts, muscle memory and the heart of the athletic lion will come out of him, it will be a subconscious effort.And we will all applaud him for it, until he thinks too much and says something post-match to piss us off.
    Good read.
    Although nowdays no band ever gives it up, they come back for the upteemth time in farewell tours, with orhcesra, studio musicians, hit compliations, forever tarnishing our memories of them, eff ‘em Bring back Joe Strummer and mick Jones with his crooked teeth!

    Reply

    • Posted by ppoenicke on 2012/10/27 at 8:03 PM

      Agreed. I think this article is a bit too early. Landon suggesting he would like to return to Everton and needing to take time off from the game equals a confused fellow, not an individual set on contemplating retirement, looking for a new golf club set and tee partners. Yes, “Retire!” is rolling around in the back of his brain. How seriously can he take that proposition when he is also thinking “Hey, I remember how much fun it was playing for Everton. All those nice people at the club. (And look how well they have started the season…)”

      Here’s a prediction for Lando: He takes a vision quest somewhere remote in the Cali mountains. He realizes that things are difficult playing pro soccer, but that he still has tremendous love for the game. Both of these desires are evident in his interviews—he just seems confused as to what to do. He reconciles his competing desires: retirement from international ball after the next World Cup—after all, it is less than two years away—followed by club retirement after a further season at Everton.

      Reply

  9. Posted by dth on 2012/10/27 at 12:20 PM

    Are there more Landons on the way? Someone with his creativity and ability to score and create goals? I don’t see anything approximating Landon…and that’s been the central dilemma of the USMNT for ages now. Maybe Klinsmann is overly suppressing the team’s creativity, but it’s hard to take a lot of solace there either.

    Reply

    • Posted by s44 on 2012/10/28 at 12:27 AM

      Every youth attacker gets touted… none deliver, even in the youth competitions. How many more cycles before we realize how difficult it was for Donovan to be… Donovan, much less have someone show up to be the chance-creating machine?

      Reply

      • Posted by Kay20 on 2012/10/28 at 12:50 AM

        Shea…still waiting.
        Gatt…continually injured and rumored to be a very vertical player and that’s it.
        Agudelo…Chivas hell.
        Boyd…back to being benched.
        Jozy…we all know what’s going on there.

        Maybe Fabian Johnson, but we discovered him late.

        Maybe Junior Flores, but we have to wait a little bit longer on that one.

        The worry I have isn’t the goal number – I think our team will aggregate for that. The worry I have is assists. Those have been paltry for this team. He was our playmaker, that much is evident.

        Reply

  10. Posted by Nelson on 2012/10/27 at 7:52 PM

    I think the more important replacements will be for Boca and Dolo. I could see Shea stepping up to the Donovan role at least in the misunderstood punk with talent way. ps I like Shea

    Reply

    • Posted by schmutzdeck on 2012/10/27 at 8:21 PM

      You are exceedingly optimistic about Shea.

      Either that or you don’t think much of Donovan.

      Reply

  11. Posted by Nelson on 2012/10/27 at 7:58 PM

    also Radiohead 2006 Bonaroo. I hope one of y’all was there

    Reply

  12. Despite all the negativity concerning “Landycakes”, he has accomplished more in a USMNT uniform than anyone past or present. His greatest fault is not living up to other’s expectations. Maybe he shouldn’t have led the US to the World Cup quarterfinals in 2002. Maybe we’d all be better off if he hadn’t scored that last minute goal against Algeria to take the Nats to the top of their group and into the knockout round in 2010. Yeah, we’d all be better off if he hung up his cleats right now. I mean, see what a breeze WCQ has been without him this year?!

    Reply

  13. Gino… I don’t think Landon Led them anywhere in the 2002 WC. He was a pup and I think that was a team LED by McBride, O’Brien, Stewart, Tony Saneh, Eddie Pope, Brad Friedel (he was my MVP for that run) and Reyna.

    Donovan scored a few times but he did not lead that team. He learned that WC while playing. I like Donovan but no way you can give him that title with all those veterans playing.

    Fact, there is still 2 other player on that roster that is still playing at a high level? Guess who? Friedel and Cherundolo. Dolo I’d argue doesn’t get enough credit for his career considering he’s been playing at a higher level than Mr. Donovan since Dolo’s been in Germany for years.

    I don’t want one player to be our focal point in US soccer, why can’t have more than 1? Why not Bradley, Fabian Johnson, and a few others like maybe Boyd, Corona, etc…

    Reply

    • Adrian,

      I’ll agree with you that he did not lead the 2002 team. I’ll also agree that Dolo has played at a higher level for years now in the Bundesliga, a league that Donovan attempted three times without any success. However, my point (and the article’s) isn’t about what Landon has achieved for his club teams, rather his importance to the USMNT. You’re right, Cherundolo’s value to the Nats is underrated. However, during Donovan’s time playing for his country, no other American has eclipsed his importance. You’re free to disagree of course but that is my opinion and I won’t change my mind about that.

      Going back to Cherundolo, I don’t think there’s been a finer, more consistent defender wearing the US kit in the last ten years

      Reply

    • Adrian,

      Wishing that the USMNT had more than one player as a focal point does not make it so.

      Dolo has long been underrated and I have often wondered how he would have done as a midfielder. After all, Reyna starred for Rangers at right back.

      Still, for most of his time with the USMNT LD has been to one player the other manager had to worry about not Dolo.

      Note that JK’s teams have had trouble scoring even though Clint has been everpresent.

      Reply

  14. Posted by Alex on 2012/10/28 at 6:51 PM

    Watching Donovan right now play Seattle. He may have injury problems, may cover a little less ground, less of a burst, but his vision and delivery is still top class.

    Reply

    • Posted by Kay20 on 2012/10/29 at 3:23 AM

      He was clearly working off his injury, playing at probably 60%…and still should have had two assists – giving him the top spot in MLS – minus 2 Keane flubs off his passes. That cross in front of goal and the pass through traffic to Keane? Class (and what we have been sorely missing from the Nats).

      Reply

  15. Posted by jb on 2012/10/29 at 8:16 AM

    I have never understood all the hate towards LD from fans. He has been the most productive player ever for the Nats (you cant argue with the stats – most goals/most assists) and he has been playing for club and country for 10 or 12 straight years. That’s a lot of miles. Then add in the mental stress of being the face of American soccer, which he did his best with, but doesnt seem to have the personality or ego to handle. That has to be a drag. So now he’s burned out and needs a break. I for one don’t begrudge him that at all. I have a great career but I sure as he** get burned out too. The fan in me hopes he can pull it together for Brazil 14, but if thats not what he wants, I get that too. And btw, it pisses me off when I hear this “landycakes” sh**. I guess fans can say what they want, but it just seems ignorant considering how much he’s given the USMNT over the last decade.

    Reply

  16. Posted by wixson on 2012/10/30 at 6:20 PM

    “Clean-up on aisle Algeria”. Classic. Good article thx. And agree that the slovenia goal minutes into the 2nd half set us on a path for some of the most memorable 2+ games of my life.

    Not an epitath, but as much as I went back/forth with him over the past decade, he’s been a superstar for us. Things end and what he’s done cannot be underappreciated.

    I’m not crying….I’m not crying…

    Reply

  17. Posted by chris_thebassplayer on 2012/10/30 at 11:21 PM

    I don’t think his play at the 2006 WC was due to a lack of mental toughness as much as being put in a hopeless situation in a crap formation by Arena. I don’t think he retires. I think the main reason for his burnout is he’s simply tired of being the poster boy for MLS, he wants out of that roll, to have the freedom to play where he wants to play without the MLS and LA basically telling him he can’t go to Everton. He’s completely mentally done with the MLS slog. How many times can you get up for playing the same teams 18 times in a season.

    Reply

  18. One month and a week later, and we’re still not done waiting on this story- but this was a tremendous article. Thanks for writing it.

    Reply

  19. Posted by Carina on 2013/01/10 at 12:05 AM

    For me, there will never be another Donovan. There is a reason I named my first born after him and not in a casual way. As soon as they told me it was a boy I told my husband his name is Donovan. I was the only US fan in a Mexican family. I don’t know how many times I sat through games in the ’90’s praying for a miracle to escape my parents teasing. Donovan provided more then a miracle. He provided stability. I was 18 for the 2002 WC and remember watching the game at home with all my aunts and uncles and cousins. 1 US fan in a sea of Mexican fans and crying when we won. I am confident the US has many great players in the future but Donovan was the first who have us as fans the expectation of success and dominance in CONCACAF.

    Reply

  20. […] Our piece from 2012… can’t say much more different now. […]

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  21. Posted by CB on 2014/08/08 at 8:27 AM

    Time is now nigh :) He’s always been a vanilla player for me – present, dependable, when in doubt, pick vanilla. It’s not until he was cut by Klinsmann that my inner LD love reared it’s head (bring on LD aaand Green at the end of the Belgium game…ugh). Good article.

    Reply

  22. […] But I Loved That Band, The Sunsetting of Landon Donovan, Matthew Tomaszewicz, October 2012– My favorite piece on Landon Donovan.  […]

    Reply

  23. I think this article really fails to appreciate how remarkable Donovan is. His 57 international goals have him tied for the 19th most EVER scored by a man in international play. He would be the leading goalscorer for all but 12 FIFA national teams. His 18 goals at the Gold Cup is tied for the most by any international player at their Continental tournament (Eto’o has 18 at the African Nations Cup), where he has won 4 championships. If you could find international assist records on-line, I’m sure he’d be in the top 20 all-time. He is also the all-time leader in goals and assists in his domestic league. He leads the MLS in playoff goals. He has won 5 MLS Cups and been the MVP in two of them.

    There are no players currently coming up in the US that even have a hope of rivaling Donovan’s career. Someday all of Donovan’s records will fall. But it is unlikely that one player will ever hold all of these records again.

    It’s easy to be smug and dismissive of the guy because of his quirks and because he has not done things the conventional way. However, I think over the next ten years or so, appreciation for his accomplishments is just going to grow.

    Reply

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