EAST HARTFORD, Connecticut – Landon Donovan’s last game for the United States national team on Friday will be an appropriately grand occasion, complete with banners and tributes and videos and speeches and, in all likelihood, a few trickles of tears from arguably America’s best soccer player ever.
Yet for all the emotion that can be expected when the U.S. waves farewell to the 32-year-old when he captains the team for around 30 minutes of Friday’s friendly international against Ecuador at Rentschler Field, this isn’t really the tough part for Donovan.
That bit will come at the end of the season, when he hopes to have won the sixth and final MLS Cup of his career with the Los Angeles Galaxy and unlaced his cleats for the final time. And it will be on those lazy days when sleep-ins, walks on Manhattan Beach, the ability to do whatever he darn well pleases and all the other perks of retirement just aren’t quite enough to stop him from missing the call of the beautiful game.
"I am sure those moments will come," Donovan told USA Today Sports. "I am not naïve. I feel those moments when I am not playing now, when I was gone from the game for a few months last year. But I am also aware that those are fleeting thoughts, they are not ingrained and they are not real in that way. I know there will be hard days, but that is all part of it.
"I have thought about this moment for a long time. There are obviously a lot of stories of guys who struggle heavily, mentally and physically, after they play. I have tried to prepare myself in that way."
An entire generation of U.S. soccer enthusiasts has grown up with Donovan as a cornerstone of the sport in this country. If his departure from being a central part of the national team is a soccer divorce, then Friday will effectively serve as little more than the final paperwork.
In reality, the break-up was sealed on May 22, when head coach Jurgen Klinsmann dropped a bombshell by leaving out his most experienced and best-known player from the 23-man squad for the World Cup after a record 156 national team appearances and an all-time best 57 goals.
Despite making a humorous commercial poking fun at his own omission, it is a decision Donovan has never fully understood and certainly never agreed with. With what promises to be a celebratory mood in East Hartford looming, however, his fractured relationship with Klinsmann was not something he was minded to discuss in the lead-up to the meeting with 21st-ranked Ecuador.
"The summer was tough," he said. "This will be a nice way to go and have the chance to relax and enjoy this in a different way than I have in the past."
However, while the collapse of his wish to play in a fourth World Cup in Brazil was painfully extinguished, the way Donovan has retained control over what will be the closing months of his playing career has given him satisfaction.
One more U.S. appearance this week, offered as an honor by US Soccer president Sunil Gulati and gratefully accepted by Donovan after some thought, is surely a more satisfying feeling than being shoved out the door, which is precisely how his World Cup axing was perceived.
That experience, of being pushed before he was ready, may have contributed to his own choice to call time on soccer at the end of the current campaign, even with the Galaxy willing and hopeful of him spinning things out a few more years.
"I think a lot of guys get pushed out at the end of their career, or get cut, and it makes it more difficult," Donovan said. "I guess in a relationship, if you are ready to move on and you make that decision, it is a lot easier than if out of the blue you are blindsided and someone tells you it is over. This is on my own terms and that makes it a lot easier. A lot of life experience makes you realize that through hard times comes good."
Donovan has been through personal trials of his own, including the break-up of his marriage to actress Bianca Kajlich, in 2011. The twilight of his career has seen him evolve into a far more philosophical and deep-thinking character than in the past when he says the entirety of his existence "was soccer upon soccer."
Travel, study and "living the parts of life I’ve missed" are all on the agenda. For now though, the focus is on Friday evening, where he will say so long to the U.S. fan base and they will return the favor.
The national team’s support greeted him as a carefree 20-year-old at the 2002 World Cup, rejoiced wildly at his game-winning goal against Algeria in 2010, and was largely outraged on his behalf in May.
In between Donovan has gone about building a legacy, one that will be hard for a future American soccer player to match. Friday will offer a chance to reflect and soak up the appreciation, a chance he surely deserves.Tags: actress, car, game, player, sports, today