Photo by David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports
By FRANCO PANIZO
EAST HARTFORD, Conn. — It was not the fairytale ending that some thought it would be, but for Landon Donovan it was incredible all the same.
After putting together a remarkable 15-year international career filled with highlights, records and memorable moments, Donovan closed the chapter on his time as a member of the U.S. Men’s National Team on Friday night. He did so in a celebratory friendly against Ecuador at Rentschler Field that was tainted a bit by a late Enner Valencia goal – but the equalizer in the 1-1 draw did not take the shine off what was a special night for Donovan.
Not when he had a giant tifo celebrating his U.S. career unveiled pregame. Not when he was given a custom-made gift by U.S. Soccer just before kickoff. Not when he was honored over and over and over again.
“It was beyond my wildest dreams, for sure,” said Donovan, who was the U.S. captain until exiting to a standing ovation in the 41st minute. “As a human being to feel that kind of love and support is incredible. I’ve put a lot into this game over many years, and today it feels like it was all worth it.”
The game itself was not perfect, but it showed glimpses of the player that has awed fans and terrorized opposing defenses for more than a decade. Donovan was energetic, made quick penetrating runs with the ball, connected a range of passes, hustled to defend when necessary, and proved to be a scoring threat.
In a perfect world, Donovan would have netted in the ninth minute with his header from eight yards out or in the 25th when long-time teammate Jozy Altidore slipped him in with a nifty pass.
It was not mean to be.
Ecuador goalkeeper Maximo Banguera denied the 32-year-old forward on the first opportunity, and the post cruelly crushed dreams of a goodbye goal for the U.S. legend on the other.
Donovan still managed to make an impact, as his cross in the fourth minute wound up being a key moment in the sequence that ended with Diskerud’s goal in the fourth minute.
It all combined to convince U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann to leave Donovan on until the 41st minute, about 11 minutes longer than had been anticipated. When Donovan finally walked off the field for the last time in a U.S. jersey, a roaring standing ovation greeted him as well as a smile and few words from the head coach who he has spent the past few months trading so many verbal jabs with – the head coach who controversially left Donovan off the Americans’ World Cup roster this summer.
“He told me he should’ve taken me to Brazil – no, I’m just kidding,” said Donovan amidst a throng of laughter in his post-game press conference when asked about Klinsmann’s message. “It’s weird in an international game like this to sort of stop and spend a minute appreciating it, but it was nice to hear the applause and Jurgen and I spoke today.
“We had a good conversation, and we both agreed that we wanted tonight to be about tonight. That’s it. It was nice and I’m appreciative of what everyone did to make tonight special.”
If the game was not already special enough, the ceremonies after the final whistle surely were. A video tribute documenting Donovan’s illustrious U.S. career was presented on the big screen on the north side of the stadium. It did not take Donovan very long to begin sobbing. He was overcome with emotion and understandably so.
“I watched some of the highlights and stuff and I think about where I was in my life off of the field during those times and how the game has given me an outlet to express myself and learn and grow,” said Donovan. “It’s pretty cool. I’ve been very fortunate.”
When the video ended, Donovan proceed to go over to the family members he had on the field and basked in the “Thank You, Landon” chants with them. He then made one more stop before walking through the tunnel one more time as a U.S. player.
Donovan went over to the American Outlaws, stood in front of them and led an “I Believe” chant. It was a euphoric but symbolic goodbye to many of the people who have rooted and supported him for so many years.
“We wish him only the best,” said Klinsmann. “I told him before the game that this door here is always open for him. This is his team. He built this team, he built so many things for U.S. Soccer. He deserves the biggest crowd, the biggest cheers and we all told him before the game, ‘Enjoy it.’ ”
Regardless of all that happened in the build-up to the game and in the past few months, Donovan did just that. Now, it’s onto his final few weeks as a professional player with the Galaxy with the hope that the season ends with the MLS Cup.
Afterward, it is onto the next phase. Not in the career of Donovan, but in the life.
“It’s nice to feel wanted, but I’m pretty sure this is it,” said Donovan. “I’m going to enjoy myself and enjoy the next chapter.”