PORTLAND, Ore. – The 2014 MLS All-Star Game will be remembered for Landon Donovan's winning goal. Especially now that we know it will be his last All-Star Game.
But the 14-time MLS All-Star should be remembered for the masterful bait-and-switch he pulled off. With all the talk of this possibly being Thierry Henry's final All-Star bow, not a single reporter bothered to ask Donovan if this was indeed his final midsummer classic.
And that’s exactly how Donovan wanted it. He played along, allowing the spotlight to be squarely on the other 22 players around him, not the least of which was the French legend for whom he subbed on in the 47th minute.
Donovan stood and waited to enter the game as Henry took a slow stroll to the sideline, basking in a standing ovation from the Providence Park crowd and applauding them right back. One of those applauding was, by the way, Donovan.
“Listen, the guy’s a legend,” he told reporters afterwards, “and for all of us, it’s an honor to play with him. And so I’m glad that Caleb [Porter] was savvy enough to do that for him, he absolutely deserves it. We hope it’s not the last time, but if it is, then I’m glad I could be on the field with him.”
If we only knew.
Donovan will retire at the relatively young age of 32, but he has been an old soul for years. He’s seen more in his career and achieved more than 99.999 percent of any American soccer player. And he’s come to understand his place in the soccer landscape better than anyone.
He soaked in his moment as MLS All-Star Game MVP and repeated over and over again how much fun he’s having this season, and how Wednesday night’s performance – a vintage individual effort for the winner after a perfect chip from Diego Valeri – was a catharsis for being dropped from the US World Cup team.
But regardless of what’s happened to him over the past six months, it had become increasingly clear that he was going to go about the twilight of his career on his own terms. He hasn’t sounded like the type of player who wanted to hang on until his body cried mercy and forced him out of the game. He wanted to go out while he still had something to give. And while he was still having fun.
Knowing what we know now, his comments Wednesday night are right in line with that narrative.
“When you’re playing well and things are going well, you want to keep playing,” he said, “and right now, I’m really enjoying myself. I feel relaxed and comfortable and I want to keep enjoying myself.”
The timing is perhaps perfect. His LA Galaxy have begun to find their peak after a slow start to 2014. The way they’ve been playing, and the groove Donovan has found in their offensive set-up, it’s not at all a stretch to think that this season could end with LA returning to the top of the mountain with a third MLS Cup in four seasons.
That would be, for the record, Donovan’s sixth. Not a single other MLS player can say that.
And when he rides off into the sunset, he may step off the field the same way he did on Wednesday night: appreciative of all the support, but completely content to let someone else have the spotlight.
It’ll be a long time before we find another one like that.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com.