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Sports

Landon Donovan's Long, Slow Separation from Soccer

Even at the height of his career, the American star has always kept himself slightly apart from the game.

by Connor Huchton
Aug 13 2014, 5:05pm

Photo by Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Less than two years ago, Landon Donovan disappeared. Well, he stopped appearing, anyway. The years of fighting had caught up to the 5'8" forward hybrid. He left his team in Los Angeles, left national team consideration, left Nike and Gatorade and his other corporate sponsorships. He took a break, still only 31 years old and in the late prime of an important career. And everyone, from the LA Galaxy to soccer pundits, seemed kind of confused about the whole thing.

He spent four months just sort of roaming about, exploring Cambodia and bachelor parties and USC classrooms. He wasn't exactly Odysseus or Gulliver or even Oliver Queen, but he was possessed nonetheless by a kind of suburban wanderlust, a sudden but understandable impulse to see the world beyond the pitch.

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Donovan's exodus tapped into a certain annoyed wavelength all over the soccer-concerned parts of the country. Forums burned with prescriptive irritation. Many questioned Donovan's work ethic; some wondered if he'd ever play again for the national team. Bad timing to go now, they said—there was a World Cup on the way, a new manager to impress, an almost-interested nation to carry. You can't leave now, Donovan, you need to turn the US into a soccer paradise!

There was more weight placed onto Landon Donovan's shoulders than on any player in American men's soccer history. From a very early age it was clear that Donovan was damn good, good enough that Bayer Leverkusen, a German club of repute, signed him at a time when young Americans were rarely on international teams' radar. That Donovan never succeeded with Leverkusen, that he didn't do much during his time with Bayern Munich, that his loan stints with Everton were as brief as they were successful, that he never had much of an impact playing club soccer—all of it confounded the narrative of American soccer, that it wasn't yet what its supporters wished. Donovan's club career was just another thing that didn't happen the way they wanted.

In the early to mid 2000s—the darkest era in MLS history—Donovan guided the league away from possible extinction with his brand of almost-stardom, his peculiar amalgam of cautious laughs and occasional heroism. He was the face of MLS as it grew, and sometimes impressed on the international stage, as he did in the 2002 and 2010 World Cups and the 2009 Confederations Cup, occasions on which he earned a few solemn British and German and Brazilian nods for his counterattacking brilliance. 

He always kept himself slightly apart from soccer, never threw the entirety of his heart and soul into a sport that was, after all, only a sport.

Upon returning from sabbatical in March of 2013, Donovan was mostly welcomed back with open arms. His teammates accepted his return, and Bruce Arena, the coach of the Galaxy and one of America's most relevant soccer minds, seemed happy to have his franchise lynchpin back home. There was one caveat—Donovan would no longer captain the team.

"I'd be lying to say that I don't want to wear the armband, I've always wanted to wear the armband for both the Galaxy and the US, but my actions as of late could be perceived as not captain-like by some," Donovan said at the time.

"Some" even included Arena, Donovan's most prominent mentor. There are consequences to bad timing. There are consequences to abandoning a ship. Despite his years of triumphs, Donovan's time as leader ended in the space of a long vacation. He wasn't 2002's burgeoning star, or the temporary hero of 2010. This new Donovan, the 2013 version, wasn't significant enough to be a symbol. He was just a player, though still a pretty good one.

However brief, Donovan's sabbatical probably led to the end of his career on the USMNT. It seems possible that his supposed lack of enthusiasm for the game caused a permanent rift between him and Klinsmann. Maybe for Klinsmann, who released a polite-enough press release regarding Donovan's retirement, the forward was not a "giver." Maybe he perceived Donovan's perceived dearth of passion as a slight to nominal team spirit. In any case, Donovan never made it to Brazil. His last stage would be MLS and the Galaxy.

The night he scored the most famous goal in American men's soccer history—the one in stoppage time that beat Algeria at the 2010 Cup—Landon Donovan broke down with emotion. But the tears in his eyes weren't the kind expected by national television audiences and the sports experiences they aspire toward. 

"We're alive baby," Donovan said in the final seconds of his postgame interview with Jeremy Schaap. Just before the producer cut away, Donovan looked into the camera, said, "Hi Bianca," and sent a kiss to his then wife, who he was separated from at the time. 

Less than six months after that kiss, Donovan filed for divorce. It follows that June 2010 was a strenuous time in the life of Landon Donovan, one full of estrangement and turbulence and stakes that had little to do with any soccer match, no matter how important one seemed for two hours of American time.

The goal was cathartic, yes, but some part of Donovan's mind always returned to life outside the game, even when he was on the biggest stage it had to offer. He was never someone who existed solely to score these goals, to achieve great things in the spaces between the white lines of the pitch. He always kept himself slightly apart from soccer, never threw the entirety of his heart and soul into a sport that was, after all, only a sport. 

Donovan's retirement press conference was not a dour affair. There were no flowers placed next to the microphone. The former star was emotional, but not constrained. He occasionally grinned. He had scored the game-winner in the MLS All-Star Game against Bayern Munich mere days before, and the remainder of a contentious MLS playoff race lay before him. Things were ending, but not badly. Sometimes bittersweet feelings lead to something less bitter. Donovan knew that this was a retirement, not a death.

Not everyone took his departure so easily. But they understood. In an emotional interview with Kelli Tennant following the press conference, Bruce Arena reacted to the news:

"There are people in our lives who make a difference, and he has as a player, and as a person. And I apologize for this emotion. I've seen him as a young kid, now I see him as a man, and see him at the end of a career, which is unbelievably ironic—that I've seen him as a baby in the sport and now as a man that's leaving. And to see the joy he had today, and to also witness the suffering he's experienced throughout his career, and to see that range of emotions, and now to see he's happy again—it's emotional to me. I'm sorry."

I hope Arena knew no apology was necessary. Though it's the last thing Donovan would've wanted, I'm sure he understood.

Follow Connor Huchton on Twitter.

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