This Sunday’s MLS Cup Final between LA Galaxy and New England Revolution will be Landon Donovan’s final career game. Darren Kelly looks back at the career highs and lows of the all time top goal scorer for LA Galaxy, the MLS and USA national team.
The MLS was still in its infancy and soccer was still primarily a game for children and women in the United States when Landon Donovan exploded onto the scene with a player of the tournament performance in the 1999 FIFA Under-17 World Championship, launching a career that has coincided with the rise of popularity and standard in men’s football in the USA.
Bayer Leverkusen awarded Donovan a six-year contract on the strength of his World Championship exploits. 16-year-old Landon struggled with the language barrier and culture shock in Germany, never seriously challenging for a place in Leverkusen’s first team.
He had more success however in 4 years on loan with San Jose Earthquakes between 2001 and 2005, scoring 32 goals in 87 games.
A teenage Donovan made his senior international debut against rivals Mexico in 2000, scoring and assisting in a 2 – 0 win. He quickly became a key player for the US, starring in their run to the quarter-finals at the 2002 World Cup. He scored twice (including another against Mexico in a last-16 win) and won FIFA’s award for Young Player of the tournament. Germany 2006 was not so happy, Donovan failed to score and USA picked up a solitary point on their way to a first round exit.
In 2005 Donovan left Leverkusen permanently for LA Galaxy. In his first season he notched 16 goals and 11 assists as LA Galaxy won the MLS Cup. Donovan was also named in the MLS All-Time Greatest XI. He had to relinquish his captaincy to marquee signing David Beckham in 2007, although Beckham failed to arrest a decline in Galaxy’s form.
For three consecutive years between 2006 and 2008 Galaxy failed to reach the play-offs. 2008, though disappointing for Galaxy, saw Donovan’s best goalscoring form at club level, notching up 20 goals in 25 appearances.
In 2009 he spent the off-season on loan with Bayern Munich, failing to score in a competitive game. New Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena reinstated Donovan as captain after Beckham chose to miss the beginning of the 2009 MLS season and extend his loan spell with AC Milan. Donovan openly criticised Beckham as uncommitted, a bad team-mate and a bad captain.
Although they publicly reconciled, Galaxy fans began booing Beckham when he returned from Milan. On the field 2009 was a success for Donovan and Galaxy – he won MVP and Goal of the year, and captained Galaxy to their first play-off appearance since 2005, losing the final to Real Salt Lake on penalties.
The USA surprised many with a run to the final of the 2009 Confederations Cup helped by two goals from Donovan. The tournament featured a memorably bizarre press conference in which a bemused Donovan answered questions from the international press about the death of Michael Jackson.
Donovan scored three important goals in USA ‘s last sixteen run at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, becoming the USA’s highest goalscorer at the World Cup finals with a total of five.
He spent two memorable off-season loan spells with Everton in 2010 and 2012, becoming a fan favourite and contributing assists in famous wins over Manchester City and Chelsea.
Robbie Keane’s arrival in LA in 2011 led to a fruitful partnership between the two all time top goal scorers of their respective nations. In both 2011 and 2012 Galaxy won the MLS Cup, Donovan scoring in both finals.
Donovan chose to take a sabbatical from football after the 2012 season, citing physical and mental exhaustion. He has since admitted he was suffering from depression, and has spoken openly about the need for greater understanding of mental health in sport.
USA coach Jurgen Klinnsmann controversially dropped Donovan for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Donovan was publicly critical about his omission and Klinnsmann’s tactics during the tournament, and Klinnsmann ordered his teenage son to apologise to Donovan for mocking the omission on Twitter. Donovan was recalled to the national team post World Cup, and received a standing ovation on leaving the field during his final game against Ecuador in October.
Despite the World Cup exclusion and retirement announcement in August, Donovan’s career is ending on a high. In 2014 he has continued to be a stand out player in the MLS. This season he has become the MLS all time top goalscorer (144) and all time top assister (136). He leads this seasons assists table with 19, has scored 10 goals in 28 appearances, and was named in the all-star team for a record-breaking 7th occasion.
Donovan has won 5 MLS Cups and 4 CONCACAF Gold Cups, and appeared in 3 World Cups. He has broken almost every individual record there is to break for his club, his league, and his country, including all time goals and assists for the USA national team, and is 2nd only to Cobi Jones in all time caps.
He has been named the US Soccer athlete of the year four times, and US men’s player of the year seven times. And he still has a chance to add one final piece of silverware to his tally this Sunday in the MLS Cup.
Whether or not Landon Donovan will get a fairy tale ending to his career this Sunday, his final match ends a glittering career and a remarkable contribution to the history of the sport in the United States.
Darren Kelly, Pundit Arena.