On Friday, Landon Donovan will suit up for the United States men’s national soccer team for the 157th and final time in a friendly with Ecuador. Retiring at just 32 years old, and as arguably the best American soccer player of all time, the story of Donovan’s career is inseparable from the rise of soccer in the United States.
The generation of soccer fans that watched the game grow in popularity and relevance in this country knows Donovan as a constant presence, and his exploits abroad and at home helped legitimize soccer in the minds of many Americans.
Though he was relatively unsuccessful playing in Germany and England, Donovan’s presence in Major League Soccer (MLS) has been invaluable in promoting the game domestically. Donovan joined MLS when the league was in its relative infancy. He now leaves it at a time when it is expanding rapidly and drawing more talent and viewers than ever before.
Though Donovan’s club retirement is effective at the end of the Los Angeles Galaxy’s MLS season, his retirement from the national side is worthy of more recognition. Donovan’s most iconic performances occurred on the international stage. He captured the wider sports-watching public’s attention and helped elevate the stature of the U.S. team.
He leaves the national team holding its all-time records for both goals and assists, and having created numerous indelible moments on the biggest stages of international soccer. No one who watched will ever forget his stoppage time rebound goal to beat Algeria in the 2010 World Cup, but Donovan’s constant energy and effort on the field should be remembered just as much as any singular moment.
When he was unceremoniously cut from the World Cup roster this past summer by coach Jurgen Klinsmann, the writing was on the wall for Donovan. But the type of performance the national team put together during the tournament, even without Donovan’s presence, reflected a playing philosophy and a competitive nature that he helped mold.
When the world speaks of American soccer, it is now often in terms of the tenacity and toughness of the national team. Though Klinsmann receives the accolades for dictating a more impressive playing philosophy and shedding the team’s underdog reputation, that process began during Donovan’s international career. Donovan and others like Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and DaMarcus Beasley have played with a type of effort and professionalism that gained respect regardless of results.
Though his final appearance in the national team’s colors will be anticlimactic—in a relatively meaningless friendly against Ecuador in Hartford, Connecticut—it will be a necessary and important moment to thank and celebrate Donovan, whose contribution to the soccer culture of America will still be felt in the years to come.