Column: Galaxy’s Landon Donovan ends his stellar career with a sixth MLS title
America’s greatest soccer player finally stopped running Sunday. Landon Donovan dug his cleats into the StubHub Center field, thrust his arms into the air and stood motionless while his swirling career ended in a championship.
“Pure joy,’' he said.
On a day the Galaxy acquired its fifth Major League Soccer title trophy with a 2-1 overtime victory over the New England Revolution, it said goodbye to its retiring leader with a rousing farewell party that could happen only in Hollywood.
Donovan, 32, ended his playing days in front of his hometown fans by winning his record sixth MLS title, after which he basked in the cheers of a crowd filled with song and awash in tears.
“Don’t we all wish to be able to leave what we do like Landon left today, as a winner?’' asked Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena. “Can you write that any better, that script?”
Unlike many sports stars whose careers end in the awkwardness of the aging athlete, Donovan left the field Sunday at the peak of his popularity, which he gratefully embraced when he ran to the stands and waved to folks who were singing, “Lan-don-Don-o-van!’'
“A lot of those faces, I see every week. It feels like they are more than just fans, they feel like part of this family,’' Donovan said. “Sometimes it sounds cheesy that you share this with the fans, but we really do.”
Unlike many sports stars who retire in the obscurity of losing, Donovan was then able to climb on a midfield stage and stand with teammates under a shower of confetti and a blaze of fireworks.
“There’s no experience like what just happened,’' he said. “I can’t imagine that anything can replace that in my life going forward, so I’m going to miss that greatly, and that’s hard.’'
He didn’t play his best game. He didn’t score a goal. He had only one shot on goal. The game-winner was scored by his successor as the Galaxy’s star, league MVP Robbie Keane, who knocked a ball into the corner of the net in the 111th minute.
The 27,000 fans roared every time Donovan touched the ball and groaned every time he gave it up, everyone hoping for him to be the star in his storybook ending. He wasn’t, but, then again, he was. It was the imperfect Donovan game, but that made it the perfect Donovan game, as he showed that the brilliance of his 16-year career — yeah, he’s been playing professionally since he was a teenager — was in his ability to adapt and survive.
He played three positions. He shouted directions to his teammates. He kept pushing.
“He’s done it the right way all the way,” New England Coach Jay Heaps said. “It’s tough that we were part of his storybook ending, but the guy deserves everything you guys write about him.’'
This is how he became both the all-time MLS leader and U.S. national team leader in goals and assists. This is how he has held every important record and won every important award in this country’s soccer history.
Even when he wasn’t at his best, he kept pushing.
“Landon has done the real shift,” Arena said. “He’s done it all. He has very little left to give. He’s spent. He’s done.’'
Donovan was so wiped out afterward he conducted his formal news conference shirtless, his torso wrapped loosely in a champagne-soaked towel.
“I’m in a little bit of a daze. There’s a lot going on, a lot of obvious excitement, some sadness, uncertainty…. It just feels a bit strange,” he said.
But then he smiled.
“As much excitement as there is about the game, there’s excitement that tomorrow, I don’t have to train anymore,” he said.
He needed this last shining moment, especially after what happened last summer, when he was denied a similar moment with the U.S. national team. He was cut from the team’s World Cup squad by Coach Juergen Klinsmann even though Donovan would have been its most decorated veteran.
Klinsmann was upset that Donovan had taken a four-month sabbatical during World Cup qualifying. Klinsmann thought Donovan was a symbol of an American soccer culture that he considered soft and entitled. He left Donovan home to prove a point, but the only thing it proved was that the American team wasn’t as good without him, as it once again lost in the round of 16.
Donovan wanted to end his career with the sports world knowing that he was still about winning. On Sunday afternoon he was granted that wish.
“I’ve always tried to be a winner. To me that’s as important as the individual stuff,” he said. “Today I didn’t have a great game, but I felt like I was doing things to help us win.’'
Donovan grew up in Redlands and has played with the Galaxy for the last 10 years, cementing his local legacy. He is credited with helping save the failing MLS when he joined it in 2001 with the San Jose Earthquakes. He was the league’s first recognizable star.
And now that he’s the most decorated current athlete in Southern California, with his six titles, surpassing even the five championship rings won by the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant?
“I’m very proud to be in that company. That’s harder than anybody realizes,’' he said.
Donovan ended his news conference by thanking the media, which then applauded him, which rarely happens. He then pulled the towel tight around his bare shoulders and disappeared through a back door. Only the scent of champagne remained.
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