We are all Landon Donovan
On Wednesday night, as Landon Donovan spun out of the box to celebrate after scoring the All-Star Game winner against Bayern Munich, it occurred to me how quiet he'd been throughout the week until that point.
In fact, thinking back, he'd basically registered prominently with me exactly twice in the previous days -- and that's not counting his entry into the game itself, where any applause for him was masked by the stage-managed departure and standing ovation for Thierry Henry.
Of those moments I remember, the first was actually in his absence, when a foreign reporter brought Monday's news conference to an awkward halt by asking the assembled Bayern trio of Julian Green, Robert Lewandowski and Franck Ribery if it was "an honor" to be playing against Landon Donovan in what might be his last All-Star Game. After the pause that followed, Green did venture tentatively that Donovan had been very nice to him, but the press officer abruptly cut the session short before the other puzzled pair could speak.
And in the other moment I noted, after the All-Star team's training session on Tuesday, Donovan was discreetly guided through the mixed zone on the Providence Park field to patiently read mean tweets about himself to camera, for a skit that was a variation on the Jimmy Kimmel bit in which celebrities do the same thing and then react. As he stood a few yards from me reading insults about him being picked ahead of Dom Dwyer, or making fun of his wooden TV punditry, Donovan treated it all with a relaxed forbearance, and self-deprecating humor, before quietly shuffling off to his next duty.
And then he played and then he scored and then he left. And then he told us he was leaving leaving.
But thinking back to those couple of moments, something about them said something pertinent about the scale and nature of Donovan's contribution to U.S. soccer and the telling disparity between how he's seen abroad and how he's seen domestically.
Having largely stepped away from the European stage to commit to, then dominate, in Major League Soccer, he had built his reputation as the USA's greatest-ever player from home, where he is treated as a colossus of the game -- yet not many of the video montages of "the world reacting" to his goal against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup were shot in Munich or London. The Riberys of this world may be only dimly aware of Donovan's reputation and, had the Frenchman been at Providence Park to see the second scene at All-Star training, he might have wondered why those guys were being so mean as to make that guy behind Henry read those tweets about himself.
Of course that's what is usually seized on to damn Donovan: the apparent lack of ambition in not continually testing himself in European football. I've never bought that, since it doesn't do justice to what he did do, which was to virtually single-handedly create a new archetype for what could be considered a successful American soccer career. If MLS was to succeed, it was a career path somebody had to take first, and it didn't hurt that it happened to be the best U.S. player of his generation who did so.
It may not have been a route that brought Donovan the profile some fans wanted for him (actually make that "from him"), but it introduced a core concept for the nascent MLS and the more ambitious domestic players within it, a concept that might be summed up crudely as "If your talent permits, of course you can go ... but it's all right to stay."
And, at some stage, what Donovan did had to happen if the league was going to gain traction -- he had to model a version of a modern U.S. player who can deliver at the international level while recognizing that, in his generation's case, national service came with certain imperatives on the home front. Other players have played at a higher level, but in many ways it was always Donovan whose achievements and choices made the achievements and choices of those other players meaningfully comparable, legible even.
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Not everybody understood. The coming months may shed more unflattering light on Donovan's relationship with Jurgen Klinsmann in particular, but for all the U.S. coach's suspicion and ultimate rejection of Donovan's path back from his 2013 sabbatical, indeed for all his related criticism of Clint Dempsey & Co. returning en masse from Europe for big MLS paychecks over the past year, I'd argue Klinsmann has a lot more to be thankful for from Donovan than just his considerable contributions on the field.
The current young darling of the U.S. squad, DeAndre Yedlin, for example, not only plays in a soccer landscape that has at least been partly shaped by Donovan, but gets to entertain a set of options and possibilities for his future career in a world that didn't exist for Donovan at a similar stage of his career, and which exists now partly through what he has modeled.
Ironically, part of the reason Donovan was able to be so circumspect this week was the fact that the "MLS player as credible international" template he'd helped shape allowed so many other players to be the recipient of the spotlight.
As his younger peers worked gaggles of media, blithely accepting that international after international was staffing the All-Star Game, they might have been tempted to reflect that they were all Landon Donovan, while the man himself wound discreetly around and through them, relishing the chance, finally, for his time in the background.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, Grantland, The Guardian US and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @KidWeil.