Donovan Left an 'Unbelievable Legacy' for Club and Country
Before the U.S. Under-17 Men’s National Team got together for the first residency program in Bradenton, Fla., in 1999, there was talk about this 16-year-old who could perform magic with the ball.
Some of those teenagers were a bit skeptical.
“This new guy is coming in, and some guys are saying that this guy is talking that he wanted to be the Golden Boot winner in every tournament we play in,” future USMNT midfielder Kyle Beckerman told USSoccer.com in 2014. “Some of the guys were thinking, ‘What is this guy talking about? We don't even know him.’”
Beckerman and his teammates would get to know this phenom soon enough in scrimmages and games.
“Oh my God, this guy is incredible,” future MLS forward Jordan Cila said.
“He really lived up to the words he was saying that first day,” Beckerman said. “He scored goal after goal — and getting assists. He had a belief in himself that he knew he was destined for some greatness.”
Indeed, he was. Landon Donovan lived up to his promise and then some.
For his endless list of accomplishments, Donovan will be inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame during a ceremony in Frisco on May 6, 2023. He was elected in his first year of eligibility on the Player Ballot.
“It’s an unbelievable legacy,” former USMNT head coach Bruce Arena said of Donovan in 2014, when he guided the LA Galaxy. “I have a hard time thinking that there isn’t another American player that’s accomplished as much as Landon has. He’s been a champion at the club level. He’s been a force in the national team programs. He’s been really the focal point in this game in our country. He’s accomplished everything an American player can accomplish … and that’s quite a legacy.
“We all know the statistics and those kinds of accomplishments, but on top of that is the first-class person.”
Donovan’s honors and achievements were so plentiful they could break the internet.
During a stellar 15-year international career, he scored 57 goals and assisted on 58 others, both U.S. records. He also is one of four U.S. men who have scored four goals in an international match.
When he was 18 years and 235 days old, Donovan became the youngest USMNT player to score a goal in his international debut, a 2-0 win over Mexico on Oct. 25, 2000, after coming on as a substitute in the 32nd minute at the L.A. Coliseum.
“I wasn’t really expecting to go into the game early,” Donovan told the Los Angeles Times. “It was an incredible experience, something I’ll never forget. I really enjoyed it.”
Donovan participated in three World Cups, scoring more goals (5) and playing in more games (12) than any other American man. He was a vital part of four CONCACAF Gold Cup titles (2002, 2005, 2007 and 2013).
Donovan set several Major League Soccer standards as well.
He was the backbone of six MLS Cup championship teams. His first two were with the San Jose Earthquakes (2001, 2003), and he won four more with the Galaxy (2005, 2011, 2012, 2014). Donovan also helped LA to a pair of Supporters’ Shields and was a member of a Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup championship side.
“In the big moments, in the big games, he has been a clutch performer,” former USMNT captain John Harkes said in 2014. “He wouldn’t shy away from them. He would step up.”
Donovan is the league’s all-time leader in assists with 136, and his 144 goals are second only to Chris Wondolowski’s 171. Quite appropriately, the MLS MVP award was renamed for Donovan, who earned that honor in 2009, the season after he won the Golden Boot.
Donovan was blessed with several essential tools that impactful attacking players need to be successful: superior skills, pace, shooting, passing and vision. He also kept himself in tip-top shape.
“I think a big thing that I’m not sure people talk about is his fitness capacity,” former U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra told ESPN.com. “He was able to go on long runs, stop-start, change directions and then still have the technical ability in the end to make a pass or score a goal. I think that’s one of the most difficult things you face when you come up against him.”
Several international tournaments helped define Donovan’s legacy.
Donovan announced to the world that he was a player to reckon with, playing a leading role in the Americans’ fourth-place finish at the 1999 FIFA U-17 World Cup. He was named the Golden Ball winner while tying for fourth place in goals with three.
“He was head and shoulders above the rest,” Cila said. “That tournament certainly gave him a lot of confidence, knowing that he could really excel at the next level. Even at that age when other guys on days off would go out, want to go to parties and have a little bit of that freedom, he would sit in his room and watch soccer tapes and work with the ball by himself. He was so dedicated to the game.
“You felt so happy that someone with that natural ability was also working so hard and appreciating it and not taking it for granted.”
Added Beckerman: “He really deserved the Golden Ball. He showed up at every game. He played extremely well. … Not only does he play well, but he makes the people around him play well.”
It seemed success followed Donovan for whatever U.S. team he played. He was a member of the U.S. squad that reached the medal round of the 2000 Olympics. The team finished fourth, the best showing by a U.S. men’s team at the Summer Games.
As a member of the 2002 USMNT World Cup squad, Donovan scored twice, including an insurance goal in the historic “Dos a Cero” win over El Tri in the Round of 16 in Jeonju, South Korea. The Americans were eliminated in the quarterfinals, but Donovan was named Young Player of the Tournament.
“I would say a nice consolation prize,” Donovan told USSoccer.com in 2022. “Awards like that are always subjective. You take it with a grain of salt. But of course, there’s worse things [than] the best young player in the tournament. I was proud of it. I was proud to be part of a group that had pushed the limits in our country for the first time since 1930 and proud of what we were able to accomplish.
“I was a little bit of a benefactor, just being around a really mature group of guys who helped me grow a lot.”
After a disappointing FIFA World Cup in 2006, Donovan bounced back with a burning passion at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, connecting for three goals. That included one of the most legendary and dramatic scores in U.S. Soccer history a minute into stoppage time in the final group game against Algeria in Pretoria on June 24, 2010. That goal propelled the U.S. to a 1-0 win and into the knockout round while winning its group.
Goalkeeper Tim Howard saved a 7-yard header by Rafik Saifi and threw the ball to the right side to Donovan, who raced up the field unmarked. He led Jozy Altidore with a pass, and the forward touched it to Clint Dempsey, who took a shot as goalkeeper Rais M'Bolhi slid in to stop the drive. The rebound came to Donovan, who slotted it home from 7 yards.
It was an emotional moment for the U.S. star.
“I’ve been through a lot in the last four years, and I’m so glad it culminated this way,” Donovan said. “It makes me believe in good in the world, and when you try to do things the right way, it’s good to see them get rewarded. Those experiences can harden you and help you grow if you learn from them and if you look at them the right way.
“I’ve spent a lot of time and done a lot of work to get something out of those experiences, and I think it all came together tonight.”
After Ghana eliminated the U.S. from the tournament, Donovan continued his pro career with the Galaxy. He also played with Everton, Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich.
He came out of retirement in 2016 to help the Galaxy, played six games with Leon in LIGA MX in 2018 and competed for the San Diego Sockers of the Major Arena Soccer League in 2019. Now 40, Donovan has guided the fortunes of the San Diego Loyal in the USL Championship as executive vice president of soccer operations and manager since 2019.
And in 2022, his first year of eligibility for the Hall of Fame, Donovan was elected in a landslide.