It's a strange thing, to watch a hero die. First came the shock, the denial, the OMGs and WTFs that exploded through our Twitter feeds last night when we found out that Landon Donovan wasn't traveling with the United States men's national team to next month's World Cup in Brazil. Then in snaked the smugness, the cynicism, the #wellactuallys, the doubt. There's no surprise here. We knew he wouldn't make it this whole time.
It was a version of his career in miniature, Donovan getting buffeted along an expectations curve of our own devising, finding himself discounted in the end.
We Americans consider ourselves special, plucked from our father's testes by God himself. Our idea of international competition is running out LeBron James or Michael Phelps as proof that we are all the Chosen Ones, that we have an inalienable right to victory, to domination. And so, when soccer washed upon our shores during the 1994 World Cup, we decided we wanted that, too.
We immediately started searching, scheming up ways the United States—decades behind the rest of the world—could mount the summit of the globe's most treasured sport. It became a sort of national parlor game. What if, we thought, we got Shaq to play? What if Randy Moss grew up with a soccer ball? In another life, would Troy Aikman have a nose for goal?
We were so busy theorizing that we barely noticed him when he presented himself to us. And then when we did, when a 17-year-old Landon Donovan was awarded the tournament's best player at the U-17 FIFA World Championships, we looked up, and we shrugged.
That shortish kid with the bleached hair and bad tan? We know that fucking kid! He was the guy in high school with the seashell necklace and the Abercrombie polo who listened to 311 and smoked weed at lunch in the senior parking lot. He wasn't different. He was like us.
He didn't even have an origin story. He wasn't from the hood, and he didn't have Olympians as parents. He was just a dude. Donovan was unlike any player we'd ever produced, but because he was too like any guy off the street—because he didn't look or act the part of an American sports hero—we doubted him.
We knew enough about soccer to know that we didn't have the league or the coaching or even the know-how to develop a world-class player. So it was exciting to see German club Bayer Leverkusen sign Donovan to a six-year contract, so that he could go, develop, and return to us as a savior of the sport.
He failed. He couldn't get settled in Europe, away from his family, his friends, and sunny Southern California, and in 2001, he slinked back after two unsuccessful years to the San Jose Earthquakes in Major League Soccer, our joke of a league where the 12 teams played on football fields and hollow cheers echoed through empty stands. But he preferred this. SMH, we thought. He couldn't tough it out.
San Jose won that year, and Donovan became the face of a league that desperately needed it. In 2002, MLS contracted to 10 teams, and Donovan went to his first World Cup with the USMNT. Somehow, the United States fought all the way to the quarterfinal. Donovan scored his first World Cup goal, and won the award for the best young player.
Donovan's contract with Leverkusen finally ran out in 2005; he couldn't make it through his final year before leaving after just seven appearance. But he returned to Germany in 2006, for the World Cup. By then, he'd won two more MLS cups and was the face of American soccer, and the USMNT had been ranked high as fourth in the world in the run up to the tournament. They were expected to improve upon their 2002 result, and Donovan was going to lead them again. And when he didn't, when he played poorly and the U.S. bombed out of Germany after three matches, he was blamed for the disappointment. "Landycakes," people called him.
The next year, Clint Dempsey transferred to Fulham, where he'd become an international cult hero, and David Beckham transferred in to the Galaxy. This, we thought, was the savior America deserved. Beckham was English, an underwear model, world-famous, and married to a Spice Girl. He fit right in, and was immediately named club captain over Donovan.
Donovan earned his 100th national team cap in 2008, but by then he seemed years older than he was. He was only 26, but he'd played pro for nine years, longer than most of us had been watching.
Many fans shared a specific kind of resentment toward Donovan. He was relatively nondescript, undersized and balding already, and spoke in a nasally, grating voice. He was arrogant on the pitch, but he shied away from the limelight in his personal life, and whenever he spoke on camera, he seemed self-conscious, or uninterested, like he didn't want to be there or had somewhere better to be.
On either wing and in transition, where he's always thrived, he could sprint past outside backs as if he was on roller blades, and in traffic, he turned and twisted like an otter, and slipped ball and body through crevasses no one else would dare enter. But as he ran, his arms and legs spun like turbines, and his face reddened, and it gave an impression that he was working harder than he needed to be, like he wasn't quite good enough to coast.
He both scored and set up lots of goals, magnificent goals, but he was never known as a stone-cold poacher or a graceful genius, and so even when you saw the goal coming, it came as a slight surprise. Often, he'd celebrate by running off aimlessly toward a sideline instead of the corner flag, or jump in the air with a decidedly uncool fist pump and scream, almost in pain, like he didn't know what else to do. And remember, he was doing all this in Major League Soccer, which had just scored its first major star and was just starting to attract designated players from leagues abroad.
Athletes like Michael Jordan, Adrian Peterson, and Cristiano Ronaldo are objectively beautiful specimens, representing a kind of aspirational, evolutionary endpoint. Donovan's talent and ability appeared to come from nowhere at all. If most superstars appear chosen, then Donovan seemed a lucky mistake, a fluke who stumbled upon more ability than any American to ever kick a soccer ball and didn't know quite what to do with it.
And so if Donovan had won some kind of cosmic lottery, well shit man, at least he could be kind of happy about it. He was traveling the world and playing the game we loved when most of us were buried in spreadsheets by day and jerking off into socks by night. He had the life a lot of us dreamed and strived for, and he never seemed to just stop for a second, and bask in it.
In January 2010, he finally ventured to Europe again. By then, USMNT players like Dempsey and Michael Bradley had already acquitted themselves in foreign leagues, and others like Fabian Johnson were following their lead.
He went to England on a brief loan at Everton, almost as if to prove to himself that he could play in the world's top leagues. He could, and scored twice in 10 appearances. That summer was the World Cup in South Africa.
The Americans drew England and Slovenia, and needed a win against Algeria in the final match of the group stage to advance. In stoppage time, it came.
The entire country went into hysterics. People cried, collapsed, hugged, kissed, sang, and cheered. Who else but Donovan, the greatest American player of all time, would be there at the end to score the most iconic American goal of all time?
The USMNT would lose a heartbreaker to Ghana in the next match, but Donovan had become a bona fide American hero, a legend. He won the MLS Cup with Beckham in 2011, dipped his toe back into the Everton squad for a loan the following winter, and then repeated as an MLS champion in 2012. Then he was gone.
He decided he'd had enough, and so he walked away from it all. He walked away from the Galaxy, and he walked away from the men's national team. He was tired, he explained, so he took time to himself four months after the MLS Cup. He missed three World Cup qualifying matches, and USMNT manager Jürgen Klinsmann, who'd taken over in 2011, said Donovan would have to play his way back in the squad.
No one knew if he even wanted to return to the squad. He was only 31, but had played professionally nearly half his life. Fourteen years of soccer, and 14 years of carrying a team, of dragging a nation into the present, can be a special kind of torture. It can take a toll on a man, grind him down.
He went on a sabbatical, and for the first time ever, Donovan was finally out of the limelight, away from the cameras. It looked like the legend was walking off into the sunset. When photos of Donovan popped up on Twitter in February 2013, he was in Cambodia, playing soccer with locals. He looked happy.
He came back last year, but he was immediately at odds with Klinsmann. He got his chance in the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup. Klinsmann brought much of the USMNT B Team, the guys trying to get in the 23-man roster for 2014 in Brazil. Donovan, the greatest player ever, didn't belong there. He played like it.
Donovan was unstoppable, and finished the tournament with five goals and seven assists in six matches, and took away the award for best player. It was the greatest we've ever seen him, and he finished the tournament as the only American player to record 50 career goals and assists each for the country. USMNT won the Gold Cup, and the question suddenly was not whether Donovan could play in the starting 11, but where was he going to fit.
But that was the last we saw of Landon Donovan, superstar. He's battled injury since, and this MLS season, he has yet to score a goal for Los Angeles. When the USMNT drew a difficult group and Klinsmann signed a contract extension last winter, we started to raise eyebrows. It wasn't inconceivable that Klinsmann was planning for the future. We did again when Julian Green, an 18-year-old prodigy winger and the ostensible Future chose to represent the United States over Germany. Maybe, the conspiracy theorists among us thought, some kind of deal had been made?
Still, that felt like crazy talk. But last night, when Klinsmann released the World Cup roster, Donovan was nowhere to be found.
Klinsmann called it the toughest decision of his coaching career.
"I have to make the decisions what is good today for this group going into Brazil," Klinsmann said. "And there I just think that the other guys right now are a little bit ahead of him."
If this explanation felt dubious and hollow, it's because it made no sense. Donovan had lost a step and gained a bit of weight, sure, but he was still one of the best five or six players on the team. Klinsmann, meanwhile, had elected to bring Green, young defenders John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin, old poacher Chris Wondolowski, and Brad fucking Davis. These guys are going to Brazil for a vacation. If they're not going to play, and if Donovan's not going to play, why not bring the greatest, most important American soccer player ever?
We don't know why Donovan wasn't granted one final lap with the USMNT. Theories abound. Maybe, somehow, he doesn't fit alongside Jozy Altidore and Dempsey and Bradley and Johnson. Maybe he's hurt. Maybe Klinsmann doesn't want him on the bench. Maybe Klinsmann just wanted to move on.
Whatever the case, it feels like something had been taken from us, as if we were all witness to a crime. In sports, where athletes are ridden like racehorses and then discarded when they're no longer of use, surely he'd earned the right to leave the field on his own feet. But this was of a piece with the Donovan saga, too. He was always measured in negative space, by his supposed lack of steel, by his truancy from the top-flight soccer leagues, by everything people presumed he couldn't do. It seems both unfair and perfectly fitting for him to go out in this way, as the great national absence.