Has Landon Donovan made the most of his U.S. soccer career? Time will tell
It's the question that repeatedly comes up wherever Landon Donovan is discussed: Did he fulfill his potential?
It's the kind of question that relates very particularly to the path Donovan took through his career -- or, more pertinently, refused to take. But it's also one that relates to some of the broader anxieties of a soccer nation that, in the modern era at least, is still a young one.
Donovan himself might well believe that in having the career he had, in some ways without our permission, he fulfilled his own potential. I'm inclined to agree, though I also feel that talking about Donovan's potential in the past tense might be premature. Donovan, and the perspective he can offer, still has much to offer the game in the U.S.; indeed there's an argument that it's what he does next that will truly put his playing career, and the ending he has chosen for it, into meaningful perspective.
In some ways, an assessment now is complicated by the fact that when we're talking about Landon Donovan, we're talking about two people. There's the complicated figure who matched consistent domestic achievement with a Bartleby-esque contrariness about where and how he vied for those achievements. Also, the imaginary archetype who haunts the minds of the American soccer public, whom Donovan was sometimes asked to be and often less than interested in being judged as.
That secondary figure is the "proven American soccer great" -- a paradoxical sporting ideal, since it's conjured from the same beliefs that fuel the idea of American exceptionalism, yet can seemingly only be determined and approved by sustained empirical testing in Europe. Speaking to Alexi Lalas over the course of writing this piece, he touched on this particular neurosis, which struggles to see players on their particular merits but instead judges them on their failure to meet standards set elsewhere:
"The anxiety ... the angst ... and what really amounts to the inferiority complex is something that has been in place for a long time when it comes to American soccer fans. And what they fear the most is not fulfilling potential. And along comes this player who in my mind is the greatest American male soccer player ever to play the game, and yet the way that he went about his business on and off the field didn't fit in with that template that has manifested itself over the years. So this savior was ... flawed."
I stand by my earlier assertion that one of the consequences for Donovan's career choices was that even if he didn't absolutely change the template for what a successful American soccer career looked like, he at least offered a viable alternative that perhaps in turn gave others permission to be themselves. And as Lalas also put it to me, "while you may take issue with it, I think you have to concede that that path actually made him the best version of himself."
In a strange way, what could be more American than the quixotic path taken by the few players who've at least been in the conversation about greatness in their own country -- the Donovans, the Tim Howards, the Clint Dempseys, each of whom had his personal struggles and even tragedies to navigate, and did so in a way that was more or less respectfully disinterested in any "template"?
It perhaps begs the question of how useful our existing definitions of "greatness" are. Though in fairness, as fans we have ideas about elite players and we can talk about the relative merits of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar et al, knowing that we're broadly consenting to the terms of what we're debating -- and nobody is putting Donovan in that category.
But there's at least an argument that in the long term at least, American soccer greatness in a broader sense (if it happens) will be shaped by different cultural and sporting forces than those that shaped the historically great soccer nations, in turn giving rise to the type of individual geniuses they have produced. And by extension, we need to be wary of the robes we try to dress our promising young players in here in the United States.
The global soccer landscape is changing rapidly, and Lalas was not atypical of contemporary commentators when he suggested to those who would have had Donovan stay in Europe, and perhaps struggle through an above-average journeyman career there, that the "path that you lay out for him could very well have led to the premature destruction of this player."
That would have been an extreme outcome, but let's not forget that Donovan had to set a trajectory for himself with limited role models. Among other circumstances, he was among the inaugural class of the Bradenton, Florida, academy when that was seen as the future of U.S. soccer; he was unique among several top-tier U.S. players for having bypassed college as a result.
Tellingly, Donovan has spoken of returning to college after his playing days are over -- again, whatever the global model for soccer excellence is, and however diminished that component may be in many of the templates put forward to advance the U.S. game in the future, the collegiate experience is still a huge part of what shapes top-level sports in the country. Donovan's inference that he missed out on something along the path he took is a reminder that not every yardstick for personal success comes from European sports.
Landon Donovan's Final U.S. Game:
- Oral history: The early years and 2006 and beyond
- Parker: Discussing Donovan's legacy
- #FCdebate: Has Donovan fulfilled his potential?
- McIntyre: Donovan's top 10 USMNT moments
- Five Aside: Donovan's numbers make him the best
- Watch: All of Donovan's U.S. goals
You do get the sense, though, that Donovan's recent years of ambivalent attitude -- namely his sabbatical, and now an early retirement from playing -- does mean that more than most athletes, what he does next will determine many interpretations of his legacy.
In one possible version, should he now angle for more influence on the U.S. game from his current position of reverence, then the playing path he took for himself may even retroactively acquire a certain moral authority -- the American who went his own way. In that version of a post-playing career, some of the exceptional talents who follow him might not only have a role model but even be more legible amid the sometimes brittle, overly rigid system of U.S. player development and the types of coaching and fan assessment it tends toward. In that version, Donovan can repeatedly be retrieved by future generations as ahead of his time.
If, on the other hand, Donovan's personal journey continues along the lone wolf route, dipping in and out of visibility while not settling on a consistent and influential incarnation in the U.S. game, then the narrative possibly becomes one of Donovan as American exception, with diminishing relevance. While it might seem absurd to be talking of a player with his World Cup goals and numerous domestic records as some sort of cautionary tale, it's not so far-fetched to talk about him as a one-off rather than as an example to follow.
For what it's worth I tend to believe in the former model for his legacy because of a steeliness that's been in Donovan's serial refusals of the expectations of others (even at his most vulnerable), and I choose to think that in stepping back to see the bigger picture for himself, he's seen ... well, the bigger picture for himself and for U.S. soccer.
I hope he continues to see himself in that U.S. soccer picture. If so, it's very possible that the events that shape Landon Donovan's legacy are yet to happen.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.