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Donovan's legacy will grow with time

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Somehow it was fitting that news of Landon Donovan's impending retirement broke the day after his winning goal against former club Bayern Munich earned him MVP honors at the MLS All-Star Game.

Donovan has always had a flair for the dramatic, and he's always been a big-game player. And more often than not, he has delivered when the lights were brightest.

At the same time, he's also been underrated and underappreciated throughout his unparalleled career -- something that could well change in the coming years, as the magnitude of his contributions to MLS, the U.S. national team, the L.A. Galaxy and soccer in America are viewed through the lens of history.

Some of Donovan's records might never be broken. There are the 138 (and counting) MLS goals and the 57 he scored for the national team, five of which came in World Cup games. There are numbers even harder to comprehend, such as his 57 U.S. assists, which are more than the next three players combined.

Most who watched him play will remember the moments, though. There are plenty of those, too, such as the last-gasp goal against Algeria in 2010 that helped the U.S. top a World Cup group for the first time, or the one he nodded home against Mexico eight years earlier that sealed a quarterfinal berth for the Americans.

Donovan's first and last caps came against El Tri, the team the Southern Californian tortured throughout his 15-year run at the international level. So did his first and last U.S. goals.

Wednesday's strike against Bayern was a reminder of Donovan's habit of shining in the big spots, and after word that he'll hang up his boots at the end of the Galaxy's season came down, it was impossible not to think back to U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann's decision to leave Donovan off his Brazil 2014 roster earlier in May.

Donovan's display in Portland and for the Galaxy over the past couple of weeks have served as a reminder that at age 32, he absolutely can still play. And while he wasn't in top form heading into the tournament, that didn't stop Klinsmann from picking the likes of Omar Gonzalez or DeAndre Yedlin, who both struggled during the early part of the MLS season but still went on to impress against the world's best. Surely, given his experience and accomplishments, Donovan also had earned the benefit of the doubt.

Klinsmann got most of his decisions right this summer, but leaving the best player in U.S. history at home wasn't one of them. It's a shame that we'll never know how much Donovan could have helped in Brazil, that the coach's ego got in the way of fielding the best possible team.

Landon Donovan showed his appreciation to the L.A. crowd after being dismissed from the U.S. squad.

Donovan wasn't blameless, of course -- it was up to him to force Klinsmann's hand -- but the idea that he couldn't have embraced a diminished role is unfounded. As much as he's acted like the star he is at times, Donovan has never been an unpopular figure in the locker room. "He's someone who, over the years, has been a great teammate," U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley said following Wednesday's showpiece. "He's a great guy."

On Thursday, Donovan swore that the World Cup snub had no bearing on his decision to walk away from the sport. Maybe that's even true. Either way, it was clear that missing out on that chance for one final challenge on the biggest stage of all was crushing. "I was excited about it," he said.

In the end, though, Donovan's legacy won't revolve around his tenure with the national team or its undignified end, but rather the decision of a generational player to make his career in MLS at a time when just about any American who was good enough (and plenty more who weren't) had eyes only for the greener fields of Europe. That, more than the gaudy statistics or the memorable moments, is why a statue of him will stand outside the Galaxy's stadium one day.

"I'm proud to be part of this league," Donovan said Wednesday night, before anyone knew what the following day would bring. "For many years, those of us who were part of this league were sort of looked down upon for staying here and playing here."

The fact that they're not anymore is largely because of him.

Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.


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