There comes a time in every player’s career when he realizes he’s probably been to the top of the mountain. He’s still more than capable, but his physical skills aren’t what they used to be. He still wants to win, but he’s already achieved more than he ever dreamed. He’s got a few years left, but the end is a lot closer than the beginning.
Landon Donovan seems to be in that place. He recently turned 30 and is almost universally recognized as the greatest player the United States has ever produced. He’s a three-time World Cup veteran, a four-time MLS Cup winner, named US Soccer Athlete of the Year four times, and is decorated in all kinds of other titles and awards for both club and country.
He’s played the game on every continent on earth and he’s earned paychecks from clubs in some of the toughest leagues in the world.
Through it all, one thing has never been in question: his hunger.
But recent comments from the Galaxy star show that even he knows that is changing. Here’s some of what he told a group of reporters in Orlando, Fla., on Wednesday:
I think all players reach a point in their career where it's natural to lose some of that hunger, that desire, to sort of break out or be a star. … That's a part that's always a challenge for athletes: trying to keep the passion alive while knowing it's still your job. There's no question that, at some point, probably sooner rather than later, I'll be pretty burned out. … There's a natural point where it's not as fun anymore, not as enjoyable and you still try to find ways to keep it enjoyable.
This all makes sense given that Donovan hasn’t really looked like himself in months. His time in a national team jersey has been limited, as he’s been out of several Jurgen Klinsmann camps due to injury or illness. And his performances for the LA Galaxy this season have been less than spectacular. It’s a little shocking considering that for the last decade-plus, he has epitomized heart and drive and success.
Donovan pulls Galaxy level
A certain loss of desire, of course, is totally understandable. He started as a pro at 16, and since then he's been through a lot, both in his professional and personal life. Now, at 30, he’s allowed a little perspective. This happens to all athletes.
But to anyone who has watched Donovan over the years, any fan who has seen that steely, angry glare on his face when a game is on the line, comments about retirement and a loss of desire are shocking to hear. More so given the Galaxy's struggles.
Where is the fire? Where is the will to carry the team on his back, as he’s done so often? Where is the guy who signed a contract extension just before last season and vowed, “I want to be part of the future”?
Unfortunately, that guy hasn’t been at the Home Depot Center enough of late — in 10 games this season, he has just two goals and two assists — which has certainly played a role in the Galaxy’s last-place performance through the first third of the season.
We have, of course, seen the old Donovan in flashes, such as during his two-month loan to Everton and in last month's home win over Portland. And he will surely turn up for the national team since he has all but openly targeted the 2014 World Cup as his final career goal before riding off into the sunset.
But Donovan's latest comments have me wondering: Maybe it’s time for the LA Galaxy to start thinking about their future. Perhaps it’s time to take stock and think about how to build for the years ahead. It’s a future that inevitably will not include Donovan. Maybe sooner rather than later.
The comments he made on Wednesday — in conjunction with several recent hints he’s dropped about wanting to go back to Everton in some capacity — say a great deal about whether he has the will and power to get LA back on top again. For his younger teammates looking to their captain for guidance during a difficult stretch, his words speak even louder: It’s hard to draw inspiration from a guy who openly admits the game isn’t the same to him anymore.
Donovan, of course, has had ups and downs before in his career. And maybe that’s all this is: a difficult, self-reflective period that he will emerge from soon enough and emphatically answer any and all questions. But it is also a watershed moment that could act as a catalyst for the Galaxy to seriously consider a solution that seems to satisfy all parties involved: Grant Donovan’s wish, and sell him to Everton on a permanent basis.
It would be a painful finality, sure. After all, Donovan has given his all to his hometown club over the years. But if he truly doesn’t have anything left in the tank to give, that doesn’t suit the player or the club.
“If I want to play another year, then I'll play another year,” Donovan said on Wednesday. “If I don't want to play another year, then I don't play another year. If I want to play five more years, I'll play five more years.”
Thing is, the Galaxy don’t have that luxury. As much as we'd all like it, even Landon Donovan can't perform as the USA's greatest player forever.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.