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Donovan’s influence in molding a generation still being felt

Landon Donovan USMNT 2000

Photo by Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports


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.”


  1. I am reminded for some reason of the final scene from “Lawrence of Arabia.”

    Feisal (to Lawrence): What I owe you is beyond evaluation.
    Allenby: Well then, godspeed.
    (Lawrence leaves)
    Feisal (to Allenby): The world is delighted at the picture of Damascus liberated by the Arab army.
    Allenby: Led, may I remind you, by a British-serving officer.
    Feisal: Ah, yes, but then Lawrence is a sword with two edges. We are equally glad to be rid of him, are we not?
    Allenby: I thought I was a hard man, sir.
    Feisal (to the diplomat Dryden): You, I suspect, are the chief architect of this… compromise. What do you think?
    Dryden: Me, Your Highness? On the whole I wish I’d stayed in Tunbridge Wells.

    What do you think…

    Gulati as Dryden
    Klinsmann as Feisal
    US soccer fandom collectively as Allenby
    “Led, may I remind you, by a British-serving officer” referring to the player born, bred, and playing his entire career (well almost) in a US domestic league, not going to Europe as Feisal… er, Klinsmann… would have preferred?

    LD’s place in history is secure. Thanks for the memories, best wishes for retirement (but stay away from motorcyles). The debt we all owe Donovan is “beyond evaluation”. But after tonight, I think we’ll be equally glad to be rid of him, so we can look to the future instead of the past.

  2. Donovan will always occupy a position of unsurpassed prominence in the sport in this country. His career spanned, even defined, the transition of American soccer from a curiosity to a force to be reckoned with, domestically and on the international stage. He inspired countless young players with his talent and accomplishments, and played a huge part in the growth of (and the growth in respect for (MLS).

    No one should question or criticize him for his career decisions, for in the final analysis he was (and is) obligated to do what was best for himself, not what we thought was best for us. Indeed, his decision to stick with MLS may be the biggest reason why his effect on players and the sport in general here has been so immense.

    Still, he will also always be something of an enigma. There will always be a sense of “what if?” when we think of Donovan. The image, or vision, or mirage of what he might have become will tantalize, and perhaps plague, many fans for years to come.

    All American soccer fans owe Donovan an enormous debt of gratitude.

  3. He really came full circle in his career. In filmmaker speak, he completed his hero arc, starting as a young brash standout and emerging as the hero that put the team on his back in the WC. I’ll never speak ill of LD.

  4. Listen, a lot of people have railed on Donovan for not “pushing himself” by continuously trying to ply his trade in Europe or with a bigger club. However, what he’s done for MLS and how he’s attached a face to this country’s league is immeasurable.

    Growing up, my sports heroes were all in the cliche sports: NFL, MLB and the NBA. As a kid, it’s easy to see yourself being an “NFL player” for example because there was an identifiable figure for me to be like and play like. Like a lot of kids, I had aspirations of playing professional sports and despite playing soccer for 13 years, soccer was never one of them.I didn’t have a domestic soccer league and no concept of European clubs. I had no tangible figure to look up to. I had no “icon” or Donovan to look up to as a measuring stick to be like (i.e Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretksy or Barry Sanders, etc) in the sport.

    What Donovan has done for future generations is far greater than any European import. Kids and young players alike were lucky to have grown up watching him, but more importantly by watching him play in the United States domestic league. The more kids that realize there’s an actual avenue to playing professionally in this sport, and playing professionally in this country equates to more kids staying with the sport in general. Better athletes, better players and better future for our National Team.

    I’m probably gonna shed a tear or two tonight. It’ll be sad to see him for the last time in the national team kit. However, I’m excited about the impact he’s made on our youth and the sport in our country. Donovan may not have been the greatest soccer player of all time, but he’s the greatest player of all time to wear the USA kit and his impact and service is worthy of this send off.

    Hartford, you’re tasked with giving LD the send off he deserves which is nothing short of greatness.

    • I think a lot of people assume he would have gone to Europe and been an unqualified success. Obviously that was not guaranteed, he easily could have bounced from club to club and never been a huge superstar. If he had been a “Champions League player” and a star in Europe, his influence in the US may have been greater by breaking down some of the bias in Europe towards Americans. I respect Landon for the path he chose and recognize the value to American soccer that it provided. I also wonder what could have been. Either way, the man deserves a ton of adulation and respect tonight. Thanks for the memories Landon.

      • IDK, unless Donovan was being voted World Player of the Year I honestly don’t know how much that would have helped, him being far away from home. Yes, some of us who are deep into soccer already and wake up early to watch or follow in forums and blogs would have been proud of him. But look at Dempsey, look how much he put into european soccer, and as a caliber of player near or equal to Donovan. LD playing in MLS was huge for the league that is now grown large and contributing a lot to American soccer. I can tell you honestly back in earlier years he was the main reason I tuned into MLS every week, even though I am on the other side of the continent.

    • There have been plenty of American soccer legends, in my opinion. It all depended on who you were watching, and what you appreciated about their game. And unlike in other sports, our soccer heroes can be from other countries too, which is fine, right? I grew up idolizing Zinedine Zidane (and Tab Ramos). Young Zizou looked up to Enzo Francescoli from Uruguay, not Michel Platini.

      LD is our most talented player ever, the most feared by opponents, but to me not the most accomplished. Consistently succeeding in Europe, earning universal respect – which is the hardest thing to do for an American player, hands down – were McBride, Dempsey, Reyna, Cherundolo, Howard, Friedel, Keller, and others.

      Landon’s abilities were epic, but those players above were bigger stars. They were the ones playing in the big tough games, every week, twice a week for 40 weeks. I remember how I felt the day Landon got owned by Steven Gerrard in the champions league match between Liverpool and Bayer Leverkusen, in 2005. I know, the good moments should outweigh the bad ones in this discussion, but it was truly his big test against finally one of the best players in the world, in the round of 16 champions league. That is where the big players perform, unless we are ready to make Landon Donovan the ONLY exception. He was subbed out in the 53rd minute, “put out of his misery” according to the Guardian.

      As a fan, I was really let down, because not only did he have an exceptionally bad game, he also quickly decided he wouldn’t fight to succeed in this difficult environment. I wanted him to do well, because he was our best player, and if our best player couldn’t do well, then in a way we were all inferior. He represented us. After that, I became a bit of an indifferent admirer, despite summer 2010.

      About avenues… there is no “avenue,” even if we have MLS and domestic based players. The best players just get really good, really young. European scouts are all over the states, as are MLS scouts now, but either way if you are good enough they’ll find you. Academies have finally created a rigorous soccer culture here, way behind European club culture, or South American street, but an improvement that is likely to produce a some very good players. But let’s not fool ourselves, that has nothing to do with Donovan, rather it’s the natural growth of the game in the United States.

      • “Consistently succeeding in Europe, earning universal respect” – I don’t think those equate.

        Every single name you listed is no where near the respect and recognized like Landon Donovan. Even Dempsey- who I love, and had a great European career- is not as well known and “universally respected”.

      • Sorry to bore you. I’m for people who challenge themselves, who like it be hard. I don’t think LD did. Those players are all absolutely respected around Europe, especially in the countries they played, maybe even more so than in the US, oddly. Universally respected means no one has a bad thing to say about Brian McBride in England, or Claudio Reyna just about anywhere. Donovan less so, because he didn’t produce enough there. They just don’t know what he can do. So he is adored mainly by Americans.

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