Words like legend and legacy bounced around the USA camp this week. Journalists gathered daily at the fields of Harvard University in Boston to watch a youthful team plump with fresh faces. They took their notes and filed their stories, but the real focus was on the long career and impact of a player who was not even there. Landon Donovan will fly across the country on Thursday, making his final appearance for the Stars and Stripes tomorrow, on Friday 10 October 2014, against Ecuador in East Hartford, Connecticut.
“He’ll wear the captain’s armband,” announced Jurgen Klinsmann, the coach who omitted Donovan from this summer’s FIFA World Cup™ squad. “It’s time to celebrate a wonderful career. He will start the game and play for 30 minutes.”
Donovan, who has scored 57 goals in 156 caps and played in three World Cups over a 15-year international career, will wear the iconic No10 jersey one last time. It is the dawn of a new World Cup cycle and Klinsmann, who has publicly targeted the semi-finals of Russia 2018, is experimenting with players.
There are only four in the side over the age of 30. Borussia Dortmund upstart Joe Gyau and DeAndre Yedlin, who recently signed a contract with Tottenham Hotspur, were barely in primary school when Donovan made his first appearance for the senior national team. Striker Julian Green was just three-years-old when Donovan was awarded the Golden Ball as best player at the FIFA U-17 World Cup New Zealand 1999.
Central defender Omar Gonzalez, 25, has been a team-mate of Donovan’s for the last six seasons with LA Galaxy. “When I was growing up, I never dreamed I would be on the same team as Landon Donovan,” the Brazil 2014 centre-back told FIFA.com, exuding a genuine admiration for his colleague of club and country, who will retire from all football at the close of the current Major League Soccer campaign. “When I first got to the Galaxy, he was all over me in training. It was a hard education,” Gonzalez added with a smile, the afternoon sun of a colourful New England autumn blaring in his eyes. “Donovan makes everyone around him better, myself included.”
“Landon’s pushed soccer in this country in a way that no other player has before, and maybe, never will again,” said Jozy Altidore, the veteran striker, currently at Sunderland, who has benefitted directly from Donovan’s vision and attacking flair. It is a sentiment echoed by striker Chris Wondolowski, who combined so well with Donovan at the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup that they both scored a tournament-high five goals. “I was shocked when I first played with Landon,” said the striker from San Jose Earthquakes, the MLS side where Donovan got his start after a stint in Germany. “He sees things on the field that no one else does. The way he reads the game is just amazing.”
Among the gathered media on the bleachers in Boston, all the talk was about Donovan. Videos and tributes are plastered on Twitter and YouTube, making the rounds in the tornado of the Internet. Discussions can be heard about favourite Donovan moments; That goal against Algeria in South Africa in 2010; That unfortunate photo-shoot in 2002. Debates could be heard about whether Donovan deserves more of a send-off than a Friday night friendly, more pomp and more circumstance. Questions like: Will there ever be a better American player? were asked, one gray-haired journalist to another.
He was not there, but Donovan’s legacy, his legend, was everywhere, most notably on the field in a crop of young and energetic players. The opportunities they have now, both abroad and in MLS, are the direct result of the trails Donovan helped blaze.
Reporters, paid to pay attention to football in America, owe Donovan a debt of gratitude. And the fans, lined up on the street for snapshots, hooting and cheering, they owe something to Donovan too. His presence, his time in a USA jersey, will be felt long after he is gone. What might have been just another forgettable friendly in October will now be historic. After a half-hour, the greatest player ever produced in America will walk off the field one last time. The score will be irrelevant.