CARSON, CALIF. — Every so often, when Landon Donovan is gliding down the soccer field with the ball tethered to his feet, tangling defenders into pretzels and inventing opportunities as if he were a teenager at his first World Cup, he wonders why he is leaving the sport he mastered.
“When I play well, I think, ‘Oh man, I can keep doing this,’ ” he said Tuesday. “And then I remember that I know it’s time to go.”
Donovan’s time is approaching. He has two more months of MLS regular season matches with the Los Angeles Galaxy, including Wednesday’s showdown with Eastern Conference leader D.C. United at StubHub Center, and the likelihood of playoffs. He will make a final appearance with the national team Oct. 10 against Ecuador in East Hartford, Conn.
Since announcing his retirement plans three weeks ago, Donovan said he has felt liberated — “like I am not holding in a secret. Letting that out has been nice.”
At 32, he still has the legs and brain to impact a game like few others in MLS; It was his heart that steered him toward the exit. His passion was fading. He felt obligated, but not driven, to play.
“He is at peace with everything. He’s happy,” said Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena, who, as the national team boss from 1999 to 2006, oversaw Donovan’s rise to international stardom. “He is pleased he arrived at a decision he feels good about. He was ready to retire. This has been going on for years, so it’s good to reach a conclusion.”
It will conclude with Donovan atop both the U.S. men’s and MLS career scoring charts, with three World Cup appearances and five MLS Cup titles. And with that goal in the waning moments against Algeria four years ago in South Africa, a winning touch replayed and celebrated for years, he etched a place in American sports history.
“He is deserving of every present, every accolade, every honor that anyone is going to give him the rest of the year,” said United Coach Ben Olsen, Donovan’s MLS opponent and U.S. teammate for years. “We are all better off in this sport because of him. He has pushed the sport to a different level in this country.”
Without a Galaxy visit to Washington this fall, Olsen and United will show their gratitude before kickoff Wednesday. They did not want to spoil the surprise by revealing their plans, but considering RFK Stadium management backed the gesture, it is likely a memento from the venue where he tormented United and glittered for the U.S. squad.
Other clubs have saluted him: When the Galaxy visited Columbus, the Crew gave him a framed piece of the net in which he scored against Mexico in a World Cup qualifier last year. The Colorado Rapids bestowed a ski pass and bottle of wine.
Most everyone in the U.S. soccer community has wrapped their arms around him in these final months, even those who questioned his commitment when he left on a soccer-free sabbatical almost two years ago and those who were critical of him settling for a long-term career in MLS instead of pursuing European glory.
The outpouring has also helped ease the pain of being left off the World Cup squad this summer, a controversial decision by Jurgen Klinsmann that stunned Donovan and sparked a firestorm of debate on the eve of the competition in Brazil.
The divide between the figures remains.
Donovan criticized Klinsmann for leaving him off the roster and for tactical decisions in Brazil.
When the USSF announced Tuesday that Donovan will make his last appearance in the previously scheduled Ecuador friendly, the press release did not include a comment from Klinsmann. Only Donovan and USSF President Sunil Gulati were quoted. (Klinsmann did, however, tweet shortly thereafter that it was “awesome” fans would be able to honor Donovan.)
“I’m ecstatic to have the opportunity to play for my country one last time,” Donovan said. “I'm thankful to U.S. Soccer for making this happen.”
First, Donovan is thinking short-term. With a 4-1-1 surge, the Galaxy has re-entered the championship discussion. Donovan is enjoying a fine stretch, Irishman Robbie Keane remains world class and Gyasi Zardes, a 22-year-old forward from the youth academy, is blossoming.
Running the left flank Wednesday, Donovan will cross paths with United defender Sean Franklin, his L.A. teammate the previous six years. “We are friends,” Franklin said, “but on Wednesday I have got to be the bad guy.”
When the season ends, Donovan has not decided what is next. He worked in TV during this year’s World Cup. During his retirement announcement, he was asked whether coaching was in his future. “If you look at Bruce,” he said with a grin while flanked by the longtime coach, “I don’t want that.”
Asked again Tuesday, he said, “I hope to continue to have an impact on the sport, although I am not sure what that means yet. Hopefully, I find a new path.”