Landon Donovan, the United States' greatest playerIt's no secret that football (soccer that is) in the United States has been slowly increasing over the years but has struggled to be as prominent as other sports over there, such as American football, basketball or baseball. It's par for the course over there but there is no denying that there have been some players who have helped defeat the cliché that American footballers don't have talent, with Landon Donovan being the first example of this.
Donovan is fairly known to people who have followed football for quite some time now and his impact in his country cannot be understated, especially considering the time period he arrived on the scene and the kind of leadership he provided for the United States as their star player. And when analyzing his career, there is a lot to unpack.
Leverkusen and then back to the United StatesAn attacking midfielder by trade, Donovan began to make a name for himself in the Under-17s World Cup with the United States in 1999 as they finished fourth in the competition and Landon Donovan was named as the best player of the tournament. He was promptly signed by Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen, a club that was on the rise at the time and seemed like a very good choice to develop Landon's talents.
However, his time at Leverkusen was very frustrating as he played regularly with the reserves but failed to gain minutes with the senior team. While Donovan now understands that he wasn't good enough at the time to get the opportunities, he also admitted in 2023 that he had been quite arrogant during his stint with Leverkusen:
"It wasn't that I couldn't handle pressure. It was just that I was miserable there. It was dark and cold most days. I would go to training for an hour and a half, which I enjoyed for the most part, and then I'd go sit at home and do nothing all day for 20 other hours of the day."
"I thought I should be playing, too. You're not getting the opportunities you think you should get - even though I was nowhere near good enough for that team - and then all of a sudden, it's like, 'What am I doing here?' I wish I had people who said, 'Hey man, just stick with it.'"
After failing to gain minutes at senior level, he was given the chance to go on a multi-year loan deal with San Jose Earthquakes at the Major League Soccer in his home country. This proved to be the right decision as he found his best form and quickly became the face of the MLS, something that would become commonplace as the years went by.
It's also worth pointing out that he led San Jose Earthquakes to two league titles in 2001 and 2003 while also winning several individual accolades such as the best player in the league. This was also the time when he helped the United States on a somewhat positive 2002 World Cup and helped them win the CONCACAF Gold Cup that same year.
It seemed that everything was set for Donovan to come back to Leverkusen in the summer of 2004 and become a regular there but he struggled to get minutes yet again, only playing 7 games that season and only two of them were as a starter. As he decided to go back to the United States in 2005, San Jose Earthquakes couldn't sign him, so he chose the club that he would be most associated with over the years: LA Galaxy.
Landon Donovan here together with David Beckham in LA Galaxy
LA Galaxy and loans abroadLandon Donovan played with LA Galaxy from 2005 to 2016, barring some loan spells abroad, and became the greatest Major League Soccer player of all time. He not only won the MLS Cup, the competition's equivalent to a league title, four more times (2005, 2011, 2012, and 2014) over there, became the club's captain, and even played alongside David Beckham as equals (at least on the pitch) for several years, but he also did so while being a genuinely great player.
His legacy was also certified by his output with the United States national team, being, as of this writing, the leader in assists, tied in most goals with Clint Dempsey, and the only player in the national team's history to have more than 50 goals and 50 assists with that side.
As the MLS was on breaks, Donovan took the opportunity to play on loan at some clubs in Europe. He had two brief stints with Everton in the Premier League, which were decent, but most American fans took pride in him playing on loan for Bayern Munich in 2009. He was the first American to play with the German giants and it is also something that he appreciates even to this very day.
"It wasn't easy, of course, because I would have liked to play more often. The fact that (Jürgen) Klinsmann wanted me so badly was a great honor because he lives in California and often watched me with the Galaxy. Jürgen wanted to see if I could make it at Bayern and wanted to give me the opportunity to do so. He was going through a tough time as a coach at the time and was criticized. Of course, that also made it difficult for him to rely on me. Overall, my time at Bayern was a great experience. Just being able to work with world-class players every day was great for me."
Barring a short and bizarre loan spell at Mexican club Leon in 2018, Donovan retired at LA Galaxy in 2016 and left a very lasting legacy as one of the first great players that the United States produced. His impact on the national team and the football culture in the United States cannot be understated.