A few weeks ago, I wrote a column that overflowed with optimism at the rapidly growing scene that has been soccer in the U.S. over the last decade.
But that was before American soccer star Landon Donovan had an interview with ESPN FC, ESPN’s soccer blog, revealing his reservations about continuing his career.
While the 30-year-old Donovan had made references to his potential retirement after the conclusion of the 2010 World Cup, it seemed more of a response to the U.S. national team’s disappointing second round exit than as a statement to be taken seriously.
Now, after Donovan’s interview – something that has become an increasingly rare occurrence since the World Cup – Donovan’s U.S. soccer future seems much more bleak than ever before. While you never want to think one player is bigger than the team or, in this case, the entire soccer scene in the United States, Donovan may be one player that proves that old adage wrong.
Since he first burst onto the scene as a young player, making his first appearance in a World Cup game at the tender age of 20, Landon Donovan has quickly become the most successful American soccer player in history.
And no, that’s not an overstatement.
As far as all-time statistics go, Donovan leads the U.S. national team in almost every category. He holds the record for most goals (49), most assists (48), most games started (130) and most points (146). The only category that Donovan has yet to conquer is total appearances (a number he could easily overtake should he continue playing through the next World Cup), as he currently sits in second place behind Cobi Jones.
So when Donovan admitted in the tell-all interview that he has struggled with motivation throughout much of the latter part of his career and said there is only a “50-50″ chance he will play in the 2014 World Cup, it was no surprise that his statements had reverberations throughout the U.S. soccer community.
After all, Donovan has meant more to American soccer than just a set of records.
His rise to soccer stardom has directly paralleled soccer’s popularity in the United States – the sport’s popularity even hit its highest point to date all thanks to one single goal by Donovan.
Ranked as the 20th greatest moment in sport’s history over the last 20 years by ESPN, Donovan’s last minute goal against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup sent the U.S. team into the second round of the tournament and U.S. sports fans into a soccer frenzy.
That game would go on to become the most watched soccer game in ESPN history with nearly four million households tuning in to see Donovan’s heroics. On average, the number of American households watching the 2010 World Cup was up over 60 percent from the previous World Cup just four years earlier.
Under Donovan’s watch, American soccer has made great strides.
While the league started with 12 teams in his first MLS season, it has now grown to 20 teams just 10 years later. Sure, the overall increase in talent in the league has a large part to do with the fact that the league is growing. But Donovan set a precedent for a path not often used by good American players before him – for America’s best and brightest soccer stars to stay in the U.S. domestic league even after his career took off.
Over his career, Donovan has motivated thousands of young soccer players to continue playing the sport and, along the way, has convinced even more Americans to become soccer fans.
With that being said, the potential retirement of U.S. soccer’s greatest player, in the midst of his best form and highest popularity, could send U.S. soccer back into the Stone Age as far as the future of the sport is concerned. After all, Donovan is the face of American soccer.
To put it in perspective, just imagine a player like LeBron James retiring from basketball at this stage in his career – having just won his first NBA Championship to go along with a gold medal in the Olympics, James is at the peak of his career.
The same is true of Donovan’s career at this point. Donovan comes off a championship-winning MLS season with the Los Angeles Galaxy, and he currently boasts nine goals and 14 assists this year despite battling constant injuries.
The loss of Donovan would not only hurt the U.S. national team’s chances at improving on its second round exit in the most recent World Cup, but more importantly it would hurt soccer’s chances for continued growth in the United States as well.
Donovan is more than just a soccer player; he has become a brand, a walking promotion for American soccer.
The day Donovan plays his last game for the national team will mark the end of an era of considerable growth in American soccer, and only time will tell if Donovan’s influence on the game can ever be replicated.