It’s a tired, grizzled old cliché. Yet it still applies as he prepares to be inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas this weekend, the latest honor in a career packed full of accolades, unprecedented achievements and unexpected turns.
Landon Donovan did it his way.
“I've tried to make decisions in my life based on a few things: on what I think will bring me joy, what's good for myself and the people around me,” the U.S. soccer legend told reporters in a media availability last week. “And I realize with the greater public, it's not always the most popular decisions. But I've tried to make decisions with those tenets as the backdrop. So I enjoyed every step.”
I'll state my case, of which I'm certain
Even by his own introspective standards, this was a startlingly open, reflective LD, looking both to the past and the future as he fielded a wide range of questions, in both English and Spanish, for the better part of an hour.
Such as his relationship with Clint Dempsey, both a colleague and rival over the years, and his main challenger for the unofficial title of U.S. men’s soccer GOAT. The two finally got a chance to spend extended amounts of quality time together while in Qatar doing television commentary work during the 2022 World Cup.
“Clint and I during our career, we were competitive, because we're both competitive. And the good thing for U.S. Soccer is that it made U.S. Soccer better, because we were teammates and we wanted to win, but we also wanted to be the man, right? And that's part of it,” said Donovan of Dempsey.
“The beauty of time and getting older, having kids, etc. and then not playing, is you lose that competitive edge and you can just be honest. And honestly, having four weeks with Clint in that environment really meant a lot to me. And I really enjoyed just spending time with him, learning about him as a dad; he loves to golf now. We both can let down our guard and just have fun and enjoy it.”
The depth and breadth of Donovan’s résumé is such that even some four years after his final competitive match, his perspective was sought on the current issues large and small facing the U.S. Soccer Federation and the soccer community at large.
Like the stunning US men’s national team scandal that erupted between then-coach Gregg Berhalter and the parents of starlet Gio Reyna in the wake of last year’s World Cup, and the subsequent turnover that has the USMNT starting over under new sporting director Matt Crocker.
“What went on was not good for anybody,” said Donovan, who coached USL Championship side San Diego Loyal for the past three seasons before ascending to an executive post last winter. “We're going in a week and a half, I am, to Frisco to celebrate what's right about U.S. Soccer, and I think we need to get that back on the men's side and get our house in order. So whoever that is, or however that happens, that's great. Do I want to be a candidate? No. Do I want to help? Absolutely.”
Or the big-picture issues that continue to dog soccer in the United States and Canada as those nations labor to climb into the global elite and fully mobilize the potential of their enormous populations and resources.
“Getting caught up in the outcome of a World Cup that happens every four years is the wrong approach. If we're just focused on, ‘how do we go into this four-week tournament and be successful,’ I think you're forgetting the important piece,” he said. “I have kids now, I'm going to my boy’s soccer practice tonight. It is very clear to me now that the path to [World Cup success] is in how we develop players. With all the resources now in America, we have players playing at a high level here and all around the world. And so just making better players, developing better players, is eventually going to get us there.
“You need a coach who does a good job in getting the players together during a World Cup and succeeding. But ultimately, it's the players. [Lionel] Messi and [Kylian] Mbappe are in the final for a reason, and they have good players around them. So the only path to that is by continuing to develop world-class players, and we're on the path. It takes time, but that's the only way to get there. I feel very strongly about that.”
Regrets, I've had a few
Many elite athletes bristle at the idea of mistakes or regrets. Not Donovan, whose career choices played out in public – and thus were intensely critiqued – like few who’d come before.
“Yes, I think about and second-guess a lot of things every day,” said the first-ballot Hall-of-Famer and three-time World Cup participant. “I second-guess all the time whether I should have left [Bayer] Leverkusen or not when I was there. I wish I had had enough guidance for people to help me understand that this was going to take time, and it was a process, in order to get a chance to play. I was nowhere near ready to play, in hindsight – at the time I thought I was. That's probably the one that sticks out the most. Should I have stayed at Everton? Maybe, right?
“But they just felt right in the moment. You trust your gut and sometimes you look back and go ‘OK, maybe that wasn’t right.’ But I still, I think, took advantage of all the opportunities I have for the most part and did my best.”
One of North American soccer’s first modern superstars, Donovan and his longtime teammate and fellow HOF inductee DaMarcus Beasley led the vanguard of the youth movement that today dominates MLS and beyond. Their generation was one of the first crops of US-reared players to turn pro as teenagers, and to turn heads around the planet, offering living, kicking proof that this was no longer an irrelevant backwater for the world’s game.
For many years Donovan was the face of both his league and his national team, too, a Designated Player before the term existed, the rare player who freely chose MLS over the bright lights of Europe’s biggest stages. Even as that responsibility came to weigh on him in later years – “though I was still young enough to keep playing,” he recalled, “I was just losing some of that joy” – he continued to embrace it, intuitively aware of both sides of the sword.
“Let's be honest: The ego loves that too, right? So I loved it and I thrived on it,” said the six-time MLS Cup winner, an icon of both the San Jose Earthquakes and LA Galaxy. “It's why I wanted to take all the penalties. That's why I wanted to win all the time. Because I loved it.
“I'm just thankful every day that social media wasn't around. For a lot of reasons, but it would have just piled that on and made it more difficult.”
To think I did all that
Perhaps because of all that, Donovan was one of the first to elevate mental health to the forefront, to share his innermost struggles with the public, to dare to put his own priorities ahead of others’ expectations. He even took a months-long sabbatical from the sport in 2013, seemingly at the peak of his powers, which ultimately influenced then-USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s shocking decision to cut him from the 2014 World Cup squad at the 11th hour.
Donovan later got a USMNT farewell despite his rift with Klinsmann, as then-federation president Sunil Gulati set up an emotional tribute friendly with Ecuador that autumn, a welcome if awkward consolation for that bitter pill.
“It's not the way I wanted it to end. But most people don't get the choice,” said Donovan last week of that USMNT goodbye. “I was fortunate to get to choose when I wanted to retire. I was probably no longer going to get chosen to play with the national team anyway. But I was at least part of that process and getting to have a send-off game.
“As an athlete, everyone has a timeline, and nobody's different. And eventually you're going to be done.”
Conversely, Donovan made un-retiring a thing well before Tom Brady brought it to the mainstream. He called time on his career after the Galaxy won their third MLS Cup in four years in 2014, then suddenly returned to the club for a brief encore in the fall of 2016. A little over a year later, he picked up his cleats yet again for an unexpected Liga MX adventure with Club León, and even tried his hand at indoor with the San Diego Sockers in 2019.
“I enjoyed going to León, I enjoyed playing indoor soccer, I enjoyed being off for a few years. I've enjoyed coaching for a few years, I enjoy commentating,” said Donovan. “Some of them bring me real, real joy. Some of them are just fun. And to be honest, I'm still – I don't even want to use the phrase ‘figuring it out.’ I do what feels right in the moment and at the time, and that can change.
“I know for some people who have their lives sort of planned out in five-year, 10-year increments, that probably makes no sense. But it's who I am. And I'm 41 now, there's not a lot of that that's going to change. I figured that out at a pretty early age, and I'm comfortable with that.”
For all the goals and trophies and milestones and crossover moments, that may be Donovan’s most enduring legacy: a “self-aware athlete,” in his words, who came of age under a microscope and not only survived, but shined, and sketched out a road map for ensuing generations to chart their own path towards the top.