Chris Henderson will never forget his final start with the U.S. National Team. It was October 25, 2000, and the U.S. topped Mexico 2-0 in Los Angeles. As much as he remembers the feeling of his own international career winding to its end, he smiles when he thinks of the other impact of that date. A spry, young kid from California subbed in for him and finished the match with a goal and an assist in his first cap.
That 18-year-old debutant announced on Thursday that he would be retiring from professional soccer, marking the end of an incredible career for Landon Donovan.
“He’s one of the top players U.S. Soccer has ever produced. For me, if he wasn’t the best, he was among the best national team players I ever played with,” said Henderson, Sounders FC’s Sporting Director. “I think he’ll be known as the best player and most impactful in this generation. There are a lot of players that go through their careers and hit milestones, but Landon is a winner. He won at club level. He won at international tournaments. When you’re done with your career, they will ask what you won. And Landon won quite a bit.”
Donovan will retire as the all-time leading scorer in MLS and with the U.S. National Team. In 156 caps for the Stars and Stripes, he netted some memorable goals on his path to 57 career tallies. In 14 stellar MLS seasons, he chalked up 138 goals and counting while playing with the San Jose Earthquakes and LA Galaxy. He also added 22 postseason goals, helping his clubs to five MLS Cup titles and eight trophies altogether.
Although he had stints in Europe with Bayer Leverkusen, Bayern Munich and Everton, his true legacy will be that he stood up to be the face of Major League Soccer for the majority of the league’s existence.
“I think a lot of people have pointed out that he was a big part of MLS when MLS needed a boost. They needed stars. They needed guys who were performing on the World Cup team to be in MLS,” said Sounders FC broadcast analyst Kasey Keller, who regularly shared the field with Donovan with the U.S. National Team. “He had his time in Europe and he bounced around, but his legacy is that he was the marquee MLS spotlight from the U.S. National Team.”
In his press conference on Thursday, Donovan said that he made the decision to retire prior to playing at CenturyLink Field against Sounders FC on July 28. He had a goal and two assists in that match, a 3-0 win for the Galaxy. Making that decision, he said, took a weight off his shoulders.
That’s something that Keller can relate to. Entering the 2011 season, Keller announced that it would be his last as a professional. He made that decision knowing that he would be about to turn 42 years old after his final match. Donovan, on the other hand, is just 32 years old.
While it is valuable to retire on his own terms, Keller thinks there is still plenty in the tank for Donovan.
“You talk to a lot of players in multiple sports that are told when to retire. They don’t get to say when they’re going to retire. That makes it easier to come that realization that it’s over,” Keller said. “I wanted to retire when I still could compete at the level where people would say to me that I can compete for another year. He still has three or four or five good years left in him, but only if he wants to.”
Donovan will finish out the 2014 season with the Galaxy, including his final two regular season matches coming against Sounders FC. On October 19, he will face Seattle in his final regular season home match at the StubHub Center, then on October 25, Sounders FC and the Galaxy will play the regular season finale at CenturyLink Field.
Those two matches, which will be televised on ESPN2 and NBC, respectively, will serve as a celebration of a remarkable career in the game.
“In this country, Landon’s done everything really. From World Cups to Olympics to MLS Cups to playing in Europe. He’s done it at the highest level and he’s been a hero in our country for U.S. Soccer. He’s had a pretty amazing career,” Henderson said. “There is going to be a lot of celebrating the career he’s had and I’m sure he’s going to try and go out on top.”