On Saturday, Landon Donovan pulled a U.S. men’s national team kit on and took the pitch for his country for the 157th and final time. If you count his time with the under-17, under-20, and under-23 squads, that number bumps up to 217 appearances with the U.S. Soccer crest over his heart. He potted 57 goals for the senior side over a 15-year span, including five in World Cup play — which is not just the U.S. record but also more than anyone else has ever scored at the World Cup from entire CONCACAF region.
But there’s the tails side to the coin as well. For almost the entirety of his professional career, Donovan has underachieved in comparison to his reputation. His first stint overseas, as a 17-year-old with Bayer Leverkusen’s reserve squad, yielded just six goals in 20 games in Germany’s third division. He was sent on loan to the San Jose Earthquakes, where he received far more playing time — yet still only scored 32 MLS goals in 87 regular-season matches over the period.
What we remember most about this stage of Donovan’s career is his breakthrough performance for the 2002 World Cup squad that reached the quarterfinals. Still not old enough to legally drink in his native country, Donovan scored two goals (and caromed another own goal off Jorge Costa in the win over Portugal) that summer to claim the Best Young Player award in the tournament. He seemed to have a natural flare for ratcheting up the intensity in pressure-packed moments, scoring 10 goals and winning two MLS titles in four seasons with San Jose on either side of his first World Cup.
As soon as he returned to Germany, though, his touch around the net failed him once again, and after nine scoreless appearances he was on his way back to the U.S. to play for Los Angeles. The Galaxy ditched leading scorer Carlos Ruiz, trading the Guatemalan to Dallas for the right to move up the allocation order and nab Donovan upon his return to MLS. He would win a third MLS Cup that first season in Los Angeles, contributing 12 goals and 10 assists to secure playoff qualification and then another four goals and an assist en route to the title.
It was a story that continually played out over the years. Donovan would be solid season after season for both his MLS club and his country, but rarely was he the best player on the pitch. Only once, in 2008, did he lead the league in scoring. What set Donovan apart was not an otherworldly talent for the game but relative health and longevity. At various times during his career he finished behind such American legends as Taylor Twellman, Pat Noonan, Brian Ching, and Chris Wondolowski in the individual scoring race. (That quartet of American-born playres, in case you were wondering, scored a grand total of 27 goals in 114 national-team appearances.)
While Donovan was not a true striker like these other players, his goal-scoring clip always seemed to .increase in red, white, and blue. He was always great while playing in MLS, but rarely the best player in the league. He was always overmatched when playing in Europe, striking out when invited to Bayern Munich and scoring a grand total of two goals over 17 appearances while on loan to Everton during the MLS offseason. Here’s how his goal-scoring rate breaks down over his career:
- MLS: 174 goals in 399 matches (.436 goals/match)
- MLS Playoffs: 22 goals in 34 matches (.647 goals/match)
- MLS Regular Season: 144 goals in 331 matches (.435 goals/match)
- US Open Cup: 6 goals in 18 matches (.333 goals/match)
- CONCACAF club competitions: 2 goals in 16 matches (.125 goals/match)
- USMNT: 57 goals in 157 matches (.363 goals/match)
- FIFA World Cup: 5 goals in 12 matches (.417 goals/match)
- Other USMNT matches: 52 goals in 145 matches (.359 goals/match)
- EUROPE: 8 goals in 59 matches (.136 goals/match)
- Other European competitions: 6 goals in 29 matches (.207 goals/match)
- English Premier League: 2 goals in 17 matches (.118 goals/match)
- German Bundesliga: 0 goals in 13 matches (.000 goals/match)
Sure, he holds plenty of MLS records. But as was mentioned earlier, only once was he the most prolific scorer in the league during a given season. (And that year the Galaxy was the worst team in the league, netting just 33 points in 30 matches and finishing with a -7 goal differential.) He is tied for the most MLS Cup titles in league history, shooting for a record sixth this year… but without talented scorers like Dwayne De Rosario and Brian Ching in San Jose and David Beckham, Robbie Keane, Herculez Gomez, and others in Los Angeles, he never could carry the team on his own.
So what is Donovan’s ultimate legacy? He certainly ranks among the best players ever to pull on the U.S. kit, his play for the national team consistently solid over the years. Had he not been left off the 2014 World Cup roster by Jurgen Klinsmann, Donovan could have extended his USMNT and CONCACAF goals records — or, conversely, he just as easily could have had another drought like he suffered in 2006 as the U.S. failed to advance from its group in Germany.
Will we remember him as the player that was always among the five or six best players in any given MLS season, or will we remember him as the flop that never could make it in Europe? Should we recall the player who played an integral role in American advancement to the knockout stage of the 2002 and 2010 World Cups, or will his failure to score a single goal at Germany 2006 and his inability to even make the Brazil 2014 roster linger in our memories longer?
He served as the face of a growing league without ever dominating the sport. He was the catalyst for seminal moments in American soccer history without being the player to vault either the club game or the national team to stratospheric heights. He is an enigma upon whose shoulders too many expectations were heaped for one man to bear, yet he always soldiered on with grace and humility.
Donovan, in short, is a mirror for the maturation process of soccer in the United States. He was never as electric as a Bert Patenaude or Aldo Donelli, early stars of the 1930s whose USMNT World Cup scoring records he would break in South Africa. He was never as successful as contemporaries like Michael Bradley or Clint Dempsey in Europe. And while he was rarely the best player for his country or with the MLS clubs for which he played, Donovan has always been the type of player whose vision makes everyone else around him better.
With a few games left in the MLS regular season, the Galaxy is on target to compete for a third consecutive MLS Cup title, which would give Donovan a sixth MLS title and sole possession of the record for number of MLS Cups won by an individual. He may not be the greatest American player in history, but he’s been perhaps the most influential. And now that his farewell match for the USMNT is in the rearview mirror, there are but a few opportunities left to watch the California native play before he wanders off into the sunset of retirement.
Catching Up Around the Globe
Last week I talked in this space about the possibility of Germany missing out on qualification for Euro 2016… and then they promptly went out and lost for the first time ever to Poland. The 2-0 result in Warsaw was a little misleading, though, as the Germans outshot the hosts 22-4 and generally controlled the run of play. The defending world champions, however, followed up the loss in Poland with a 1-1 draw at home in Gelsenkirchen against the Republic of Ireland. With four points after three matches, their only win coming against Scotland after Thomas Muller broke a deadlock in Dortmund in the 70th minute, Germany is undoubtedly operating at a reduced level of the skill it exhibited this past summer in Brazil.
But because third-place teams will have a shot at reaching France thanks the fact that UEFA has expanded the field to 24 teams, Germany is still in decent enough shape. The team that really needs to worry might be Serbia. After a drone interrupted an already volatile scene in the Euro qualifier against Albania, referee Martin Atkinson called off the match while the score was tied 0-0.
Serbia has already missed out on the past two major tournaments (Euro 2012, Brazil 2014) and could be in danger of being forced to play all its qualifiers away from home after Serbian authorities failed to keep the crowd under control. If that happens, a team that is already languishing in fourth place in Group I could miss out on a third straight tournament and become further removed from the promise exhibited in reaching two consecutive World Cups in 2006 and 2010.
In less than 20 months, CONMEBOL and CONCACAF will join forces in the United States to celebrate the South American federation’s centennial with a special edition of the Copa America. The ten CONMEBOL teams will join forces with the US, Mexico, Costa Rica, and three other qualifiers (the winner of the 2014 Caribbean Cup and the top two teams from the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup) for a 16-team tournament in seven US cities.
What is interesting about the move is that it expands upon the invitational format which CONMEBOL has already been implementing to expand its tournament to a 12-team field. Mexico will be at the 2015 edition of the tournament, the ninth time El Tri have competed in South America’s quadrennial competition, as will Jamaica. But with CONCACAF already prioritizing its Gold Cup as a counterpart, and in the habit of forcing invitees from its region to field junior teams in the Copa America, this is unlikely the kind of thing that is bound to expand into a tournament spanning both continents with regularity.
The 2016 tournament in the United States is thus almost certainly going to be a one-off affair, which is a shame. If CONCACAF and CONMEBOL could work together more frequently, the creation of a joint federation could provide benefits to nations throughout the Americas. North and Central American teams would benefit from playing teams like Brazil, Argentina, and Chile more frequently, improving the quality of play as a result; South American squads would gain access to larger, more lucrative markets that could combat the outflow of money away from the continent as attendance in professional leagues declines and players bolt for more prestigious European leagues at the first opportunity. And in unison there would be enough clout in a unified federation from the Arctic to Patagonia that would more effectively serve as a counterbalance to UEFA’s preeminent stance in the world game.
Matches of the Week (all times Eastern)
- THURSDAY/16 October 2014
- River Plate at Libertad (Copa Sudamericana, 8:30 pm)
- Botafogo at Santos (Copa do Brasil, 8:30 pm)
- FRIDAY/17 October 2014
- Paris Saint-Germain at Lens (French Ligue 1, 2:30 pm)
- Real Salt Lake at Portland Timbers (MLS, 10:00 pm)
- SATURDAY/18 October 2014
- Kuban Krasnodar at CSKA Moscow (Russian Premier League, 6:30 am)
- Tottenham Hotspur at Manchester City (English Premier League, 7:45 am)
- Hannover 96 at Borussia Monchengladbach (German Bundesliga, 9:30 am)
- Eibar at Barcelona (Spanish Primera Liga, 2:00 pm)
- Ajax Amsterdam at Twente Enschede (Dutch Eredivisie, 2:45 pm)
- Toluca at Atlas (Mexican Liga MX, 10:00 pm)
- SUNDAY/19 October 2014
- Espanyol at Atletico Madrid (Spanish Primera Liga, 6:00 am)
- Toulouse at Marseille (French Ligue 1, 8:00 am)
- Newell’s Old Boys at Rosario Central (Primera Division de Argentina, 2:00 pm)
- Napoli at Inter Milan (Italian Serie A, 2:45 pm)
- Seattle Sounders at Los Angeles Galaxy (MLS, 8:30 pm)
- MONDAY/20 October 2014
- Orebro SK at Djurgarden (Swedish Allsvenskanliga, 2:45 pm)
- Nacional at Guarani (Primera Division de Paraguay, 6:00 pm)
- TUESDAY/21 October 2014
- Bayern Munich at AS Roma (UEFA Champions League, 2:45 pm)
- Ajax Amsterdam at Barcelona (UEFA Champions League, 2:45 pm)
- Portland Timbers at Olimpia (CONCACAF Champions League, 10:00 pm)
- WEDNESDAY/22 October 2014
- Juventus at Olympiakos (UEFA Champions League, 2:45 pm)
- Real Madrid at Liverpool (UEFA Champions League, 2:45 pm)
- Zenit St. Petersburg at Bayer Leverkusen (UEFA Champions League, 2:45 pm)
- Universitario de Deportes at Alianza Lima (Primera Profesional de Peru, 6:00 pm)