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Landon Donovan: The Right Man at the Right Time

The soccer icon announced that he plans to retire at the end of the 2014 MLS season, and ASN's Brian Sciaretta has a few words to share about Donovan's role in the evolution of soccer in America.
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
August 07, 2014
4:13 PM
JUNE 21ST, 1998 is likely the low point in United States soccer history.

The momentum MLS had generated following its inauguration had faded, and the league was now faced with dwindling crowds in oversized NFL stadiums. The 1998 World Cup was supposed to provide another boost for soccer in America, but on that day the U.S. lost to Iran and was eliminated from the group stages of the tournament.

Younger fans may not remember it, but there was a legitimate fear that soccer in the United States was going to disappear again into the abyss—just as it had following the collapse of the North American Soccer League. Fans these days complain about a lack of respect for American soccer. Back then, people were just hoping for survival.

The year after the Yanks' disastrous showing at the 1998 World Cup, the United States Under-17 team traveled to New Zealand for the 1999 U-17 World Cup. Back then, U-17 World Cups were completely off the radar among American soccer fans, but that team gave American Soccer a pulse it very much needed.

The team featured the likes of DaMarcus Beasley, Bobby Convey, Oguchi Onyewu, and Kyle Beckerman. Its most noteworthy player, however, was a slight, speedy attacker from Ontario, Calif.—a youngster named Landon Donovan, who would lead the U.S. to the semifinals and be named the tournament’s best player.

  • CLICK: How Do You Define Donovan's Soccer Legacy?

    As that tournament laid the foundation for a needed change in American soccer, 12 months later Donovan would grip American soccer for the first time in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. The Olympics are a big deal in the United States and a very young Donovan helped to lead the U.S. team to the semifinals. For the first time in years, American soccer had positive headlines that would provide momentum into the 2002 World Cup.

    Donovan was the right player at the right time.

    Of course, the 2002 World Cup was a monumental achievement for the U.S. national team. The team had its best showing since 1930 (when it made the semifinals), and Donovan was front and center as he forced an own goal in the stunning upset against Portugal. He also scored a victory-sealing goal against Mexico that clinched the Americans progression to the quarters.

    For the second time, Donovan was the right player at the right time.

    Following the 2002 World Cup, U.S. soccer encountered a rough patch. Donovan returned to MLS from Germany and people questioned his resolve as the national team struggled at the 2006 World Cup, and failed to advance.

    Following that tournament in Germany, things went from bad to worse as the national team halted play in an ultimately failed attempt to land Jurgen Klinsmann as head coach. Without having played games for over six months and now moving forward without a high-profile foreign coach— as had been prioritized by U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati—the U.S. team once again needed to rebound. Donovan, again, came to the rescue, leading the Americans to a 2007 Gold Cup championship. Donovan scored four goals in that tournament, including one in the thrilling 2-1 victory over Mexico in the final.

    Once again, Donovan was the right player at the right time.

    Two years later at the 2009 Confederations Cup, Donovan helped the U.S. advance to its first-ever finals in a FIFA tournament, where it eventually fell to Brazil. Donovan scored against Italy in group play and again against Brazil in the final.

    None of that, however, would compare with what Donovan would do next on the international stage at the 2010 World Cup. He sparked a tournament-saving rally in a 2-2 draw against Slovenia to erase a two-goal deficit.

    A few days later, he scored perhaps the most memorable goal in national team history. With the U.S. needing a goal to advance out of its group it appeared as if it would never come. After 90 minutes of the U.S. controlling the game but having nothing to show for it, Donovan took a perfect toss from Tim Howard and scored on a counter attack deep into stoppage time.

    This incredible moment set off celebrations around the United States and had the public embracing soccer, perhaps for good. For all the high ratings and interest the U.S. team achieved in 2014, perhaps it was 2010 that set the stage for it all.

    For the final time, Donovan was the right man at the right time.

    Of course, Donovan was crucial in helping MLS become what it is now. He is the league’s all-time leading scorer and, along with David Beckham, has helped establish the Los Angeles Galaxy as the premier team in North America. Would MLS be as far along without Donovan? No.

    Unlike the NASL, which lacked an American face, Donovan gave MLS one. His record on the international stage gave credibility to the belief that a player could achieve success on the game’s biggest stage—the World Cup—despite playing in MLS. No doubt that helped give talented American players like Omar Gonzalez, Kyle Beckerman, Matt Besler, and Graham Zusi the confidence to sign with the league during their prime years.

    Jurgen Klinsmann's decision to leave Donovan off the 2014 World Cup team will be talked about for quite some time. Would Donovan have been the right player at the right time again? It is impossible to say.

    But by all accounts, he will be leaving the game playing at a very high level. The Galaxy are perhaps playing the best soccer out of any MLS team at the moment and Donovan’s game-winning goal against Bayern Munich at the All-Star game last night was fitting.

    Donovan will likely finish his international career with a staggering 57 goals and 58 assists for the U.S. national team. Many of these came against elite teams at very important moments. He tormented arch rival Mexico throughout his career, and without Donovan the U.S. likely would have a 20-year gap, from 1994 through 2014, where it failed to advance out of World Cup group play.

    Does MLS survive that 20-year period if the national team fails to achieve any kind of noteworthy success? Would soccer in America have returned to the dark days of the mid-1980s, where nobody cared and soccer was merely a niche sport for foreigners?

    Fortunately, U.S. Soccer never had to deal with these issues because it always had the right man at the right time.

    Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.
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