If Magic Johnson and Larry Bird came along at the right time to save the NBA with their skills and transcendent personalities, if Wayne Gretzky appeared to become the relatable face the NHL lacked and trigger a warm-weather hockey boom, Landon Donovan has earned a place on that short and special list, coming along at a time Major League Soccer needed a marketable American superstar to push the growth of the sport.
When Johnson, Bird and Gretzky retired, the obvious conclusion was that there would never be another one like them.
“And there’s always another one,” said Chris Klein, Donovan’s roommate with the U.S. national team and, later, his boss as president of the Galaxy.
It’s not clear who the “next one” will be to succeed Donovan, who retired after the Galaxy defeated the New England Revolution for an unprecedented fifth MLS title Sunday. That player might just be starting to play the game. He might not have been born yet.
But there will be another dazzling American with Donovan’s speed and uncanny ability to score landmark goals on the international stage. A player who will break Donovan’s MLS records of 143 goals and six championships, eclipse the 57 goals he scored for the U.S. national team and lead the U.S. deeper into the World Cup tournament. That player will appear someday because Donovan came first, attracting fans and giving MLS the boost it needed to stabilize and grow.
“We have three designated players, so we will replace Landon’s spot,” Klein said. “You never replace Landon Donovan, though, and you never replace what he’s done for this sport. Nor do we want to. If there’s not another Landon Donovan or someone else, then something has failed and the legacy he has worked so hard to build won’t have come to fruition, because all the young players that have looked up to him for so many years are continuing to develop and soccer has never been more popular than it is in our country right now.
“There will be another player that is better than Landon Donovan, but I’m not sure there will be another Landon Donovan.”
Like Bird and Johnson and Gretzky, Donovan was unique to his time. Donovan was strong-willed and immature, but he grew up before our eyes and grew into the burden of lifting an entire league.
By choosing to come home from Europe early in his career and play in MLS he did it his way. Galaxy defender Todd Dunivant, who played with Donovan for 10 seasons, called Donovan’s impact on American soccer “mind-blowing” and Donovan’s six titles “crazy,” all accomplished while making those around him better players.
“We’ve had other good players and there’s been great U.S. soccer players — Cobi Jones, Claudio Reyna and others — but Landon’s on another level,” Dunivant said. “He holds every MLS record and all the national team records. He has won the most championships and you can’t argue it in any other way. He’s got the numbers, he’s got all the intangibles and he’s the standard now.”
MLS Commissioner Don Garber said Donovan’s decision to play at home in his prime “put us on the map and established our league as a real strong alternative to playing abroad.” Garber added, “We will forever remember the role that he played in establishing us as a global player in the soccer business. His legacy will forever be etched in our league’s history.”
Creating that legacy wasn’t easy. As The London Guardian newspaper noted Wednesday, Donovan was scornfully nicknamed “Landycakes” for supposedly being soft and “not slogging through and staying the course in Europe. That was only the beginning of a career marked by a gulf between what Donovan wanted and what the soccer world felt was best for him.”
Donovan always listened to his heart. It might have cost him respect. It almost certainly cost him a place on the 2014 U.S. World Cup team. He ultimately went back to Europe and thrived while on loan to Everton, but he left his indelible mark here.
“That’s an ongoing debate with our national team currently,” Dunivant said of the choice between playing in MLS or overseas. “Juergen Klinsmann thinks that in order to have a good national team, every player has to be playing in Europe. And Landon has proven you can play in MLS year after year and be a great player still and be a great player on the international stage. He was the first to really do that.
“He took a lot of flak for that. A lot of people wanted him to play elsewhere, but that wasn’t what he wanted. ... He’s shown you don’t have to go that path, you don’t have to do this because everyone thinks other leagues are better and it’s going to make you better. ... He stood true to himself and played where he wanted to play and didn’t become a worse player because of it.”
Donovan became better because of it. So did the Galaxy and MLS.
Dunivant said he can see Donovan, after taking a break, returning to soccer to coach kids. Klein hopes to have Donovan rejoin the Galaxy as a club ambassador.
“Landon needs to take a step back and see what the next challenge is going to be for him,” Klein said. “Because retirement is fun, but knowing Landon and what he liked, he’s going to want another challenge and he’ll be just as successful in the next phase of his life.”
Times staff writer Kevin Baxter contributed to this story