By Jason Davis
Landon Donovan’s relationship with soccer is complicated. That’s been true since his earliest days as America’s greatest soccer hope, back when he was winning the Golden Ball at the 1999 U-17 World Cup, but it’s especially true now as he flits across America’s small but intense soccer media landscape, touching down every so often to willingly inform us he’s no longer exploding with soccer passion. In the latest instance Donovan let slip, through ESPN’s Roger Bennett, that he wouldn’t mind some time off to “travel to distant places alone”, “spend a lot of time with family”, “think”, and just generally not be so soccer-focused for a while.
The thrill, as they say, is gone.
Not that any of this is new. Back in May, when the United States was prepping for a series of friendlies and qualifiers in Florida, Donovan admitted to feeling less than enthused about his job. The physical part of it was getting harder, of course, but he also spoke of a distaste for the spotlight. Both in his recent comments and those he made five months ago, Donovan projected the image of a man always unfit for the trappings of stardom finally deciding he’s had enough.
Landon Donovan the person’s proclamations of a waning interest in the sport don’t help to untangle our own complicated relationship with Landon Donovan the player. Already marked a pariah by a vocal segment of the American soccer fanbase for his failure to “challenge himself” abroad beyond two short later-career stints with Everton, Donovan’s recent admission that his fire doesn’t burn as brightly at age 30 will only serve to sharpen his image as the preternaturally gifted player with a debilitating lack of ambition. For some, that attitude is unconscionable, and Donovan’s confounding ability to be content with the status quo an odious crime. We ask our athletes to run themselves into the ground, to only give up when it’s clear they’re not good enough anymore, and to always push themselves to the highest level their talents will allow. Anything less is failure, even if our appreciation of their internal struggles is fleeting.
The truth is that Donovan’s perception within American soccer is in intrinsically tied to a collective American soccer ego. Remember, Donovan was Freddy Adu—without the mainstream hype—before Freddy Adu, a player with notable talent that was primed to take a place among the best in the world when he appeared on the scene in 1999. When he flamed out at Bayer Leverkusen and returned home to play in his native California rather than ascend to the top of the Bundesliga (with figurative American flag in tow), the die was cast: his reputation would always be mixed. Whether fair or not, he earned the resentment of so many who had tied American soccer’s hopes to his individual star.
Despite his record goal totals, consistently excellent play, multiple MLS championships, significant contributions to multiple American World Cup campaigns, and leadership by example on the field for an entire generation of American soccer-playing kids, Donovan has never been allowed to just play soccer. It was Donovan’s misfortune to come along just as the American soccer community was waking up to its potential place in the world and needed a hero to lead the charge. It was American soccer’s misfortune that the best player it had ever produced was uniquely unqualified to play the role.
Thirteen years after it began, Donovan’s career is waning, and Donovan the person is pulling away from the glare of the spotlight. More than a decade of serving as Major League Soccer and the U.S. Men’s National Team’s poster boy has worn down a man never made for the job. As he crosses into his thirties, the enigma of Donovan is probably deeper and more frustrating than ever before, in large part because he did finally jump the Atlantic. Strong contributions at Everton over the last two winters just gives more ammunition to those who cannot fathom why he didn’t try sooner or stay longer. It’s ironic that Donovan’s success, and the reciprocal love affair he has with Everton and its fans, actually works against him the eyes of American fans still chafed that he refused the mantle they repeatedly tried to thrust upon him.
Here’s a theory:
Donovan went to Everton out of sheer and unassuming curiosity. Not because he was “challenging” himself—at least not in the way most people think of that concept—but simply to see how it might go. There was no intention to use it as an extended try out in hopes of a permanent move, and it wasn’t something he did because American soccer told him he should. He went for himself, but even then it was an exercise in “why not?”, not a conscious effort to make a name or prove anyone wrong. It wasn’t even about proving anything to himself; he went because there was really no good reason not to go. Only the resulting love affair with the club (fostered by a welcoming spirit Donovan might not have experience at any other point in his career), and the refreshing fact that he was just another player on a team full of talent—and not the face of it—made him decide to go back for a second stint. Like so many other things Landon Donovan does, playing with Everton happened because it was relatively simple. Donovan likes simple.
End of theory.
Landon Donovan challenges American fans. He’s not comfortable with stardom, which is obvious, but he’s also inscrutable, which is maddening. Unlike the humble shyness of say, Lionel Messi, he presents himself as aloof and disinterested. He’s used just enough of his ability to make the world believe he could be much more, if only he’d try, but has chosen comfortable familiarity to chasing superstardom. There’s no easy read of his motivations, and we can’t always be sure he’s giving every possible thing he has. Perhaps most fundamental to his image among fans, Donovan is strikingly oblivious to how his words and actions will play with a public that already views him with a jaundiced eye. Whether it’s a criticism of David Beckham or an admission he’s thinking about life after soccer, Donovan’s honesty rarely works to his benefit.
There’s a lot of Will Hunting in Landon Donovan. Like Ben Affleck’s character from the film does with his friend Will Hunting, American soccer fans both support and resent Donovan at the same time for—they believe—deluding himself into believing he’s happy with what could fairly be called underachieving. Right there on the surface, bubbling up for as long as Donovan has dominated MLS and starred for the national team, is the same kind of exasperation which boils over in Affleck’s Chuckie when his friend refuses to maximize the natural gifts he was given. We didn’t want to wake up in 20 years with Donovan still in the neighborhood, doing the same thing, when he should be somewhere better doing something bigger.
He doesn’t owe it to himself, he owes it to us.
And now Donovan is talking like a player mentally ready to call it a day. He’s lowered his profile, making himself less available to the media. He’s cut out Twitter and Facebook. With his time off, he wants to travel the world, alone. Coming from anyone else, that statement might be sound like exaggerated posturing. Coming from Donovan, it makes perfect sense. It’s almost as if he’s is sending the world a message: It’s the people, not the soccer.
Finally, the long battle between an expectant American soccer public and Landon Donovan, greatest American player, might be winding down. The utter, debilitating fatigue—on both sides—is palpable. There’s no clear timetable on when Donovan might retire, but it would surprise no one to see him quit after this year, nor would it be a shock if he played a pivotal role on the U.S. team at World Cup 2014. Even with the recent talk of physical struggle and mental burnout, divining Donovan’s intentions is nearly impossible. There’s always a chance he takes a break, comes back refreshed, and plays another five years under the scrutinous eye of community that have never understood him.
When Donovan does decide to close the book on his professional soccer career, the resulting debate over his legacy might be even more exhausting than the constant speculation over his career in-progress. Not his status as “greatest American player”, which is unassailable based on his body of work, but the eternal question of whether he could have been so much more—If only he’d had the ambition.
What will undoubtedly get lost in that conversation is the possibility that Landon Donovan might not have been Landon Donovan anywhere else. That his comfort was essential to his play. That sometimes, athletes are people who aren’t made to follow our expectations, because sometimes, athletes are just physically gifted people who don’t need validation.
When discussing his changing outlook on the his career, Landon Donovan says he’s “a pretty simple kid.”
So why is he so complicated?