LOS ANGELES – Perspective.
After nearly all of his 30 years spent on a soccer pitch – and 10 of them saddled with being the face of US Soccer – Landon Donovan has earned it.
He’s earned the right to speak his mind, be free with his thoughts and not give a damn about what people think of him.
And it’s become clear in his frequent candid moments over the past six months that he’s tired. In fact, this past season, he played a career high in minutes at 2,256. But more so, he’s tired of being told he has a responsibility to his club and his country, that he must give more – in essence, that this is isn’t his choice to make.
So in that sense, it makes sense that Donovan’s latest hint of his career coming to an end sooner rather than later came on Wednesday when he told Julie Foudy in an interview with ESPN that he needs a break from playing. And that may come as soon as the end of the Galaxy’s run in the 2012 MLS Cup Playoffs.
“Your body's going to tell you it's time to take a break,” he said, “and that's what my body is telling me this year, there's no question.”
That’s the latest in a line of interviews in which he’s said he doesn’t have the same passion for the game he used to, that he might not make it to a fourth World Cup and that he feels no pressure to keep going anymore after a pro career that began 13 years ago.
"I don't feel any obligation to play,” he said. “I don't feel any responsibility to play. I think I've put in a lot into this whole thing. I'm proud of what I've done and what I've been a part of. But I can't fake it."
Donovan has earned the right to be introspective after doing nearly everything there is to do as a player. He has four MLS Cups to his name, an MLS MVP award, four US Soccer Athlete of the Year awards, three World Cup appearances and has scored more crucial goals at crucial moments than any man who ever put on a US uniform.
He’s literally grown in front of our eyes. From an impetuous kid who made poor decisions both on and off the field, to an adult who experienced love and loss just like the rest of us, to the wise old soul that he is now, who is realizing the inevitable truth that eventually occurs to any pro athlete: The game isn’t everything.
But he’s also been held to a different standard than any other player in US history. Since his breakthrough at the 2002 World Cup, he has been held up as the face of US Soccer. He has been the figure who was tasked with raising the game to the next level in this country. At every turn, he’s been told that he needs to The Man.
All that’s fine and good. But that mentality may also be holding US Soccer back. Maybe it’s for the best that Donovan’s time is growing short. It’s been too long that he’s been held up as the example. Landon is a once-in-a-generation talent and has helped raise the game in this country to unprecedented heights.
Now it’s time to go find someone new. The longer Landon Donovan is held up as the model, the longer it will take us all to realize there will never be another Landon Donovan.
Maybe there’s no one coming down the pipe right now who will match him. Maybe that’s a good thing. That’s another reason to take a long, hard look at the development system in this country and consider what’s working and what isn’t working.
But for now, we can sit back and enjoy Donovan the player, as we have for the last decade-plus. Come Thursday evening, when he leads his Galaxy into their MLS Cup title defense, he promises he will give us his all and “push through.” That’s what he’s always done.
If the end is near, he will leave it all on the field. And then he’ll move on to something else.
That’s a lead we all should follow.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. "The Throw-In" appears every Thursday.