2010. The summer before my senior year of high school. I’m sitting in Lipscomb’s gym during a youth rally. The entertainers on stage are funny enough, but I’m checking my phone every few minutes.
All of a sudden, a few rows down, a guy shoots up from his seat, one hand in the air, the other holding his phone. Within a minute, several others around the gym had joined him. From behind the curtain, a man runs onto the stage.
“GOAL! We scored! U.S. scored! WE WIN!!”
It was the group stage of the World Cup. The U.S. had been forced into a do-or-die situation against Algeria. After 90 goal-less minutes, the U.S. scored to advance to the next round and win their group for the first time since the first World Cup in1930.
In 2002: Landon Donovan played in his first World Cup as an 18-year old utility man, switching between playing forward and anywhere in the midfield. In the Round of 16, he scored a goal and was named Man of the Match against Mexico to send the U.S. to the quarter-finals — the only time the U.S. has advanced past the Round of 16 since 1930.
It’s 2014. The World Cup has ended, and Donovan has announced his retirement from international play. Jurgen Klinsmann selected Donovan for one last match with the U.S. earlier this month. Between determining the best roster for the Gold Cup next year and finding talented prospects for the World Cup in 2018, Klinsmann put together a line-up of young, unproven players to support Donovan in his final match, such as DeAndre Yedlin and Joe Gyau. Leading up to that match against Ecuador, I read several articles positing that Donovan was being snubbed for his final match, that the young roster wasn’t the appropriate farewell for such a legend, and that he should play with other U.S. stars he has played in so many games with, such as Tim Howard and DeMarcus Beasley. But if you put Donovan’s 16-year career in perspective, his send-off could not be more appropriate.
As an 18-year-old scoring against rival Mexico, Donovan gave the few American soccer fans hope. While playing with U.S. legends like Brian McBride and Brad Friedel, Donovan appeared on magazines and in commercials. He was named the Best Young Player at the 2002 World Cup. A country that cared little for soccer had a rising star.
By the 2010 World Cup, Donovan was the only truly established threat the U.S. had. Hopeful fans talked about Jozy Altidore’s potential, Michael Bradley’s passing, and Howard’s passion, but Donovan was the player we knew we could count on. With his stoppage-time goal against Algeria, he gave U.S. fans new and old the timeless memory of finally winning our group.
After a dramatic win against Ghana and a heartbreaking loss to Belgium in the 2014 World Cup, soccer is at a better place than it ever has been in the U.S. From Obama’s locker room phone calls to fans packing into bars, the energy throughout the nation was unparalleled by any other World Cup. Young fringe players like John Anthony Brooks, DeAndre Yedlin and Julian Green earned recognition with big plays in crucial moments. Though Donovan wasn’t even on the squad, there’s no doubt his dedication to U.S. soccer is a big reason why a nation that has never cared much for soccer got so fully behind the national team.
Donovan spent years toiling away with little recognition.
He won tournaments and earned qualifications for the national team, setting records in goals and assists. He gave a pedigree to our domestic league — the MLS — winning the league five times and setting records in goals and assists there as well. He spent more than a decade building the program and fan base of U.S. soccer so that players today can enjoy the sort of support they received during the World Cup this summer. Playing his last game in a U.S. jersey with young prospects like Yedlin and Green was the most appropriate send-off the humble hero could have been given.