EAST HARTFORD, Conn. — Landon Donovan set U.S. national team and Major League Soccer records for goals and assists, scored in a signature stoppage-time moment that lifted America to a first-place finish in a World Cup group for the first time in 80 years and won five MLS titles — with a sixth still possible.
Jurgen Klinsmann was hoping for more.
“I think it could have gone even further than that,” the U.S. coach said Thursday, a day before Donovan plays his 157th and final match for the national team in an exhibition against Ecuador.
Donovan burst into the soccer spotlight at the 1999 FIFA Under-17 World Championship, when the U.S. finished fourth and he won the Golden Ball as top player. He made the roster for the 2000 Sydney Olympics and, with his hair dyed blond, scored against Mexico in his national team debut at the Los Angeles Coliseum on Oct. 25, 2000.
Now 32 and struggling to find motivation in recent years, Donovan announced in August this will be his final season, a decision he revealed three months after Klinsmann left the forward off his World Cup roster. On Friday night, the U.S. Soccer Federation will honor Donovan with one final international game, celebrating the career of a player whose initials are noted in the promotional materials to bookend the word “LegenD.”
“He has been the poster boy of the game, for MLS certainly, through that long stretch of time,” Klinsmann said during a news conference at Rentschler Field. “He raised the awareness of the game to new dimensions far before maybe a David Beckham came into the league.”
In international appearances by Americans, Donovan trails only Cobi Jones (164). His 57 goals are well ahead of second-place Clint Dempsey (39) and his 58 assists are more than double the total of Jones, who is second with 22.
But his resume also includes two failed stints in Germany with Bayer Leverkusen (1999-01 and 2004-05) and an unimpressive loan spell with Klinsmann’s Bayern Munich team in 2009. Donovan did enjoy success during winter loans to Everton in 2010 and 2012.
“As a coach, you always want to see a player that drives for his 100 percent,” Klinsmann said. “I wished in a certain way, ah, he could have done a bit more here and a bit more there.”
Klinsmann refused to second-guess his decision to cut Donovan, which deprived the player of what would have been a fourth World Cup trip. Donovan and Klinsmann appeared to have tension in their relationship following Donovan’s decision to take a four-month sabbatical from soccer that ended in March 2013.
“In that moment in May, the picture for us was very clear and we were 100 percent behind the decision that we made,” Klinsmann said.
With the Los Angeles Galaxy in the late stages of the MLS season, Donovan remained in California to train with his club Thursday, then was to join up with the U.S. team in the evening. He will captain the U.S. on Friday, play the first 30 minutes and return to the Galaxy for Sunday’s game at Dallas.
Still shuttling between club and country after all these years. In his absence, his national team mates were left to discuss Donovan’s impact. Jozy Altidore said he will always remember a February 2008 conversation with Donovan in Houston on the eve of Altidore’s first game against Mexico.
“Don’t worry about the people in the stands. Have fun. You’re here for a reason,” Altidore recalled Donovan saying. “He just gave me so much confidence.”
Goalkeeper Brad Guzan thought back to the stoppage-time goal against Algeria in South Africa four years, which ranks among the great moments in American soccer history. Guzan was most impressed by “the way he handled an entire country on his back, in terms of helping the sport grow, his performance in big moments that meant a lot for the sport in the this country.”
Donovan and Guzan are the only players over 30 on a youthful U.S. roster as the Americans play their second game in the four-year cycle leading to the 2018 World Cup.
“The way he just handled everything I think was very unique,” Guzan said. “I don’t know if anyone else will ever have that opportunity because he was the first to do it.”