By FRANCO PANIZO
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Jozy Altidore was 12 years old and in Haiti during the summer of 2002, propped in front of a television set that had only three channels and watching on as Landon Donovan took the world by storm as a fearless 20-year-old forward.
Eight years later, while Altidore was playing alongside Donovan, Bobby Wood was back at home feeling extremely disappointed. His nation stood on the brink of an early elimination, but the sadness was overcome with ecstasy as Donovan scored an unforgettable winner late in the match that changed everything.
Directly or indirectly, Donovan has helped mold part of the next generation of U.S. talent. Along with fans across the globe, younger players everywhere have had their imaginations captured by Donovan since the Ontario, California, native made his international debut back in 2000.
They’ve seen him dazzle with his blistering speed, clutch goals, patented penalty kicks, and dozens of assists. They’ve watched as Donovan introduced himself to the world in 2002, seen him suffer deep disappointment in 2006, and been witness to one of the timeliest of goals in U.S. Men’s National Team history four years later.
Perhaps it will be fitting then that Donovan, 32, plays his final U.S. match next to several of those types of youngsters on Friday against Ecuador, youngsters who’ve witnessed the successes and the failures, felt the joy and the anguish, and been influenced all along the way.
“At least for my generation, he was a hero,” said 21-year-old DeAndre Yedlin. “He was the player we all looked up to. He was an inspiration to be doing such great things at such a young age. To be able to be here for his last game is going to be a pretty special moment, at least for me personally, because I can connect to that just growing up and seeing him play and having him as one of my heroes.”
Donovan’s impact in the American soccer landscape is hardly just because of what he has done on the field as a professional, though make no mistake that his U.S.-best 57 goals and 58 assists in 156 appearances have played a large part in captivating the generations that have followed his.
No, Donovan’s influence can be found at even the youth levels. He is still the player that is talked about quite a bit in the residency program in Bradenton, Florida, the prized possession of a U.S. Soccer federation hoping to produce players of his quality on a more frequent basis.
“Growing up, in the residency program, that was always like the main guy that the coaches always had us look at,” said Joe Gyau. 22. “They always told us that Landon Donovan was a hard worker. He was very mobile. His technique was good and he was always in the right spots. That’s what they used to tell us. They used to tell us to watch how he moved on the field and stuff like that.”
Added Altidore: “You try to go after all of [DaMarcus] Beasley and Donovan’s records. Those were the guys at the residency, really, that took the program to the next level. You wanted to follow in their footsteps. That was the dream. To be able to do that and play alongside him so many times is incredible.”
Donovan’s name has also reverberated in MLS, providing aspiring U.S. professionals a dominant athlete to watch in nearby stadiums. There, he has set records and won four MLS Cups, all while serving as the face of the league during its adolescent years and growing it into what it is today.
Simply, he was the kind of player that parents wanted their kids to look up to as a role model.
“When I started, my dad told me about him,” said forward the 21-year-old Wood. “That was my first memory: when he was with the San Jose Earthquakes. That’s like the first time I ever got into soccer.
“(My dad said), ‘There’s this guy that’s killing everyone,’ and that’s pretty much it.”
Donovan did the same for the U.S., whether by burning Mexico time and again, scoring on one of his trademark penalty kicks, netting multiples hat-tricks against the likes of Ecuador and Scotland, or winning four CONCACAF Gold Cups.
Donovan’s international accomplishments and statistics are gaudy and speak to the various different ways – speed, intelligence, skill – he could make an impact on the field.
“I didn’t know that they were that insane,” said Wood, who discussed Donovan’s numbers for the U.S. with roommate Gyau this week. “Those numbers are crazy. I don’t think anyone is going to break that in a while, unless someone starts when he’s 15. Jeez, I didn’t know those stats were that crazy.”
For Donovan, this outward appreciation from younger players is a reminder of how he long he has been playing professionally. But it also something that has fueled his drive to help nurture future players, and give them guidance about how to not only improve on the field but off it as well.
“I actually have really come to enjoy that piece of it,” said Donovan when asked about having an impact on the next crop of U.S. players. “In some ways it would’ve been nice to (have) actually been here longer and get to know some of them a little bit better. I enjoy that role in LA with the Galaxy.
“I can’t imagine a scenario where I won’t want to be involved to some extent – maybe not at the national team level – with developing younger kids and helping them. Not just for what happens on the soccer field, but how you deal with the other stuff off the field, which handily would’ve helped me throughout my career. I look forward to that. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.
“I’m looking forward to getting to at least spend a couple of hours with some of these guys tonight and see how they do. I’m excited for them and get to know them a little bit. It’ll be nice.”
Donovan will ride off into the international sunset on Friday night, but not before he has one more chance to represent his country, score a goal, or record an assist.
Even if he doesn’t do either of the latter two, his emotional goodbye around the half-hour mark will serve as a reminder of all that he has accomplished, while also giving the next wave of players something to aspire to.
“Landon, he’s a a player I admire a lot,” said 24-year-old midfielder Joe Corona. “We all know what he did for U.S. Soccer and I think he’s somebody a lot of people are going to miss in U.S. and growing up I would look up to him and even now.
“He’s a legend, he’s someone that put U.S. soccer high, and I just feel that we young guys can follow in his steps.”