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.
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.
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!”
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.