I believed in Landon Donovan because he truly embodied the U-S-of-A as well as any soccer player I’ve ever seen. He played his best when the lights were at their brightest.

I believed in Landon Donovan because I grew up watching him develop into one of the best American soccer players of all time. I watched his transition from scrawny kid with absolute potential to true superstar. As methodical as the jerseys he donned morphed from baggy to skin tight.

I believed in Landon Donovan because he believed in American soccer and all of us who support it.

The beginning

Donovan bypassed college soccer and at 17 years old was part of the inaugural full-time residency program at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.. From the start he had a nose for the goal.

He won the Golden Ball at the 1999 U-17 World Championship. In totality, Donovan found the back of the net 35 times in 41 appearances for the US U-17 team.

Starring for the youth national teams earned Donovan a chance with Bayer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga. I don’t blame him for not toughing it out and sticking in Germany for the duration of his six-year contract with the club. How many of you could honestly say you would’ve been comfortable as a professional in a foreign country at that age?

In 2001 Leverkusen loaned him to the San Jose Earthquakes, kicking off his MLS career.

“I used to pick him up every day to go to practice,” Jimmy Conrad, former Earthquakes and USMNT defender, told Over the Ball’s Kevin Flynn and John Bolster on Wednesday. “I feel like I had a little bit of a big brother role with him.”

Donovan wasn’t always the consummate pro. Conrad even described him as a punk.

“I think he would raise his hand and say he had a little bit of an attitude,” Conrad added. “I think he did that because that’s what he felt like he had to do. I don’t know if it was really him. Just like, ‘I’m a young guy, everybody thinks I’m going to be great,’ in a room with a bunch of grown men.”

Donovan helped lead the Earthquakes to the 2001 MLS Cup. One of Conrad’s favorite Landon moments came during that game.

I adored Donovan’s flair (not his beach blonde hair). The exuberance he exhibited during games. He played like a kid who absolutely loved the sport.

Donovan says hello to the world

Donovan broke onto the senior international scene in 2002 under then-US Men’s National Team head coach Bruce Arena. Veterans like Eddie Lewis, Eddie Pope — my personal favorite player at the time as a fellow defender — Brian McBride and Cobi Jones lead the team on and off the field.

It wouldn’t take long for Donovan to leave his mark.

He helped lift Team USA to a shocking 3-2 win over Portugal in the World Cup group stage and into the Round of 16 against rival Mexico.

Nary a soccer fan will forget his header against our biggest rival in the next game.

Lewis lifted a ball from the left corner into the box and streaking through multiple defenders was 20-year old Donovan, who calmly directed the ball past the goalkeeper.

United States 2, Mexico 0. Dos a Cero officially cemented into US Soccer lore.

He propelled the U.S. to the World Cup Quarterfinals, the furthest they’ve ever gone in the tournament, and garnered “Best Young Player” accolades.

Back home he lead the Earthquakes to the 2003 MLS title, scoring twice in the MLS Cup Final against the Chicago Fire. Three years after being named the Young Male Athlete of the Year in all of US Soccer, he was officially the best player in the country.

Four years in San Jose. 87 games. 32 goals. Two MLS Cups.

To live and retire in L.A.

In 2005, Donovan’s hometown Galaxy traded away Carlos Ruiz in order to have the right to have Donovan on their team. His third MLS Cup title followed.

The 2006 World Cup was a disappointment for all. America’s thirst for similar success to 2002 added immense pressure on the team.

Brian Ching played with Donovan in San Jose and the USMNT. Ching witnessed first-hand the weight Donovan carried in 2006.

“I think he put a little too much pressure on himself. Everybody put pressure on him and he didn’t perform up to his level and I thought it affected him. I was proud of him,” Ching told John Harkes and Janusz Michallik on The Football Show Friday.

Yet true to form on the world stage, the USMNT played their best game against Italy, the eventual champions.

David Beckham joined the Galaxy 2007. Donovan submitted some of his best seasons statistically alongside Beckham — scoring a career high 20 goals in 2008 — but the club struggled to find the desired postseason success.

Here was Donovan, still the face of soccer in America playing in the city of stars alongside Beckham, the face of international soccer for many. It was Donovan, the talented Yank who always found his way back to MLS, and Beckham, the globe-trotting superstar who didn’t fully commit to MLS until his waning years.

Grant Wahl detailed their somewhat tumultuous relationship in his book The Beckham Experiment. In the end they found harmony on the field, which lead to hardware for both.

Ching credited playing with Donovan for making him a better player. He admired how he bounced back after ’06.

“He came back from that World Cup,” said Ching, “ which, I know, he was disappointed in himself.  I think the whole country was down on him at that World Cup as well, but he came back and I think he went on this amazing run of form in the MLS to score a bunch of goals. That’s tough to do. When you hit a wall or setback like that, to refocus and to come back more successful.”

No one had any idea how successful he’d be.

Landon takes the world by storm

Donovan captained the USMNT in the 2009 Confederations Cup. The U.S. stunned reigning European champions Spain in the semis, but lost to Brazil 3-2 in the final despite taking a 2-0 lead.

Donovan scored the second and John Harkes, former USMNT captain and host on SiriusXM FC, points to it as one of the finest in a career filled with monumental moments.

Everton and the English Premier League came calling once the 2009 MLS season concluded. Donovan played well — earning club Player of the Month honors in January that season — scoring two goals in 13 games for the club.

Donovan’s star power was at its height, but the Galaxy were keen on getting him back for the MLS regular season, so he returned stateside.

As the summer neared, Donovan and the U.S. were primed for a deep 2010 World Cup run under new national team head coach Bob Bradley.

Supremely talented on the field, Donovan behaved like a true leader off it as well. Garth Crooks, former Tottenham striker and BBC Reporter, recalled the time Donovan played his best game ever.

The 2-2 draw vs. Slovenia that will be remembered for a phantom offside call against Maurice Edu who volleyed home a lovely feed from the captain himself. The USA should have won that game.

Crooks was in awe of the composure Donovan displayed in the tunnel immediately after the final whistle.

“He was a giant.”

That game and even that goal might only be in the memory banks of the die-hard soccer fans. Every American sports fan remembers Donovan’s magical goal against Algeria in that tournament.

Tim Howard save … outlet to Donovan who streaked down the middle of the field … on to Jozy Altidore … to Clint Dempsey in the box … shot right at the Algerian goalkeeper … ricochet to Landon who never gave up on his run to goal.

The easiest of finishes.

The most significant of goals.

It took all of 10 seconds.

Jay DeMerit, former Watford and Vancouver Whitecaps defender, played in every game of the 2010 World Cup for the USMNT. He had the best view in the house for the dramatic finish, and relived the glory on Wednesday’s edition of Over the Ball.

“There was nothing more American than that win,” DeMerit said. “Our teams just keep going and keep fighting, a never-ending effort to try and win. Landon epitomizes that.”

Ian Darke, ESPN play-by-play announcer, was the voice of that game. He told John Harkes and Joe Tolleson about his famous call on The Football Show this Thursday.

The United States won their group for the first time since 1930. The country was smitten with the sport and its biggest star.

I finally saw my favorite athletes on national TV spots.

Back-to-back MLS Cup titles in 2011 and 2012 with the Galaxy — his third with the club and fifth overall — reaffirmed his greatness on American soil.

Going out on his terms

Detractors will tell you he didn’t give it a fair shot in Europe. Not that Donovan didn’t perform well at Everton — he absolutely did, even during his second stint in the winter of 2011-2012 — but didn’t have the length of career like a Brian McBride, Tim Howard or Clint Dempsey.

The pull of playing at home was too strong.

“He was happiest in California,” said Ian Darke. “Five MLS Cups, now the top scorer.”

It’s hard to argue with that success.

Call it burnout. Call it fatigue, physical or mental. Call it what you want. Donovan needed and took a hiatus from soccer after the 2012 MLS season ended.

That irked new USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. So much has been said on the subject that I can’t really offer any new insight. I don’t blame Donovan for taking time off from soccer. I don’t blame Klinsmann for being upset and consequently leaving him off the 2014 World Cup roster.

Conrad voiced his admiration toward Donovan having the courage to “tap on the brakes … the realization that he needed to take a break from carrying U.S. Soccer on his back for eight-to-10 years, and kind of being the spokesperson for the sport in this country.”

He carried his club. He carried his league. He carried his country.

136 MLS assists (and counting). 144 MLS goals (and counting). 58 USMNT assists. 57 USMNT goals. The most all-time.

Arena coached Donovan when he first broke into the senior national team and has been on the sidelines of the LA Galaxy since 2008. Deciding his own destiny is something to hang his hat on, Arena told John Harkes and Tony Meola, former USMNT goalkeeper, Tuesday on Counter Attack.

For the player who was the face of his sport in his country for half of his life, Donovan has dealt with the pressures and weight of expectations with incredible grace.

ESPN’s Bob Ley, synonymous with soccer in America, wouldn’t even list a play from the pitch as his favorite Donovan moment. It wasn’t even an interview. After one of the worst tragedies in America — the school shooting in Newtown, Conn. — he put everything aside for the most important people – the kids.

“He was there for the kids at a time when he knew they needed it,” Ley told Kevin Flynn and John Bolster on Thursday’s Over the Ball.

The time has come to hang up the cleats for Landon. You can point to his being left off the 2014 World Cup roster. You can point to fatigue. Yet sometimes the best answer is the most simple: Grant Wahl, Sports Illustrated senior writer and SiriusXMFC contributor, says Donovan is just listening to his mother.

Harkes, former USMNT captain and SiriusXM FC Host, summed it up nicely on Thursday.

“He has that ability to stand up in big games. We always say big players show up and he does. He has throughout the years. He’s just a talented kid, let’s not make it more than it is. He’s a helluva player and the U.S. has been lucky to have him part of the set up.”

Landon’s legacy

So what does it all mean? Is Landon Donovan the greatest American player of all time? How much does he owe his success to those before him like Harkes, Meola, McBride, Tab Ramos, Alexi Lalas and so many more that paved the way for American soccer players of his generation?

Statistics support the claim that he’s the best to ever play. His numbers dwarf those of anyone else. Donovan dragged MLS to (somewhat) equal footing with the four major American sports. He brought soccer into the limelight of mainstream American culture. He made us believe that we could win and compete against the rest of the world.

Maybe there will come a day when a more gifted and talented player comes along. Maybe there will come a day when Donovan’s records fall.

He wasn’t perfect, but he was exactly what we needed for the last 15 years.

Maybe that’s enough.

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