EAST HARTFORD, Conn. – Landon Donovan's U.S. national team career ended here Friday night in a 40,000-seat stadium playing for a coach who, on the one week of Donovan's life set aside to celebrate his career, said he could have done better.
Thanks for being the face of U.S. Soccer during its most successful run ever. Thanks for more goals (57), assists (58), and minutes (12,813) than anyone else to represent the Stars and Stripes. Thanks for more World Cup appearances (12) and goals (5) than anyone else in the red, white and blue.
Could have done better? This must be what Cristiano Ronaldo feels like every time someone brings up Lionel Messi.
If Jurgen Klinsmann meant that Donovan could have done better than an ending like this – in a post-World Cup friendly against Ecuador that resulted in a 1-1 draw – he's right. A national team career like his deserves a much more fitting ending.
Every attempt to bury the acrimony between Donovan and Klinsmann was made by U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati and the federation in the buildup to the match. Donovan said afterward that he and Klinsmann spoke before the game and agreed that "tonight would be about tonight."
Still, by all accounts, there is only napalm under the bridge for those two, and napalm sticks around. So much so that even on this celebratory night, the very fans here to say goodbye couldn't help but also feel like the children sitting down to graduation dinner with their divorced parents.
"It will be halfway emotional, but I also think it's going to be real awkward because the past week it's been really obvious how much he and Klinsmann don't get along," Prairie Rose Clayton of Boston said before kickoff. "It feels like, ‘Yes, we're totally going to start him and he'll be captain,' while Sunil is behind [Klinsmann] with a baseball bat. That's what it feels like.
"This is great, but there's something really forced and awkward about it."
Donovan walked into a Rentschler Field just beyond half-full, was presented with a few gifts, shook a few hands and then barely had time to settle in before the U.S. took control of the game.
He produced a cross to Jozy Altidore that didn't connect but it led to a sequence that ended with Mix Diskerud scoring in the fifth minute. Nineteen minutes later, Altidore held up play and set Donovan up beautifully for a clear run on Ecuadorian goalkeeper Maximo Banguera, who was beaten by Donovan's shot, but got helped out by the post. Minutes later, a final shot on goal by Donovan rolled wide left.
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And that was it. All that was left was the awkward handshake, a half-hug and a few words with Klinsmann.
"He told me he should have taken me to Brazil," Donovan said with a wry grin. "Just kidding."
About 40 minutes had passed since kickoff, and the stadium still wasn't at capacity (it would never reach that point with a final attendance of 36,265). Donovan got one final roar – "Thank-you-Lan-don" was the chant of the night – between leaving his teammates and reaching the touch line. Even that one roar was a little underwhelming, all things considered.
But that wasn't too surprising. In fact, Clayton and other fans expected the night to be a celebration that couldn't fully be embraced. The proper time to say goodbye was somewhere else, or perhaps, not at all. There's nothing wrong with East Hartford. The scenery is beautiful this time of year. But this is where Donovan's story ends?
"I think they missed the opportunity," Clayton said.
Gracious for the moment, Donovan did nothing but praise those that gave him the opportunity to embrace playing for the U.S. one final time.
"It was beyond my wildest dreams for sure," he said. "As a human being, to feel that kind of love and support is incredible. I've put a lot in to this game over many years, and tonight feels like it was all worth it. I'm very grateful."
He broke down during a postgame video tribute.
"The best for me was watching the video and actually letting myself go a little bit," Donovan said. "I've been so focused on all the other stuff that's going on and just doing, doing, doing and not allowed myself to just be with it. I watch some of the highlights and think about where I was in my life off the field then and how the game has given me an outlet to learn and grow."
Before crossing over from the grass to the concrete of the tunnel under the stadium, Donovan stopped one last time to say hello to the supporters that were still lingering, still serenading him. He soaked it in just a few feet from the barrier.
"A little out of character for me, but sometimes you've just got to let go and enjoy it," he said.
The tributes looked right. The serenades sounded right. The affection was genuine, the fans deeply cared that they were there to say goodbye to the only player most of them have ever known as the face of American soccer.
"Those people – supporters' clubs and American Outlaws – they're the blood of this team and this sport," Donovan said. "And when I started there probably would have been a few hundred people, and now there are thousands of people that probably made the trip from all over the country to support us, support me. That was a fun moment."
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But it wasn't 3-2 over Portugal. It wasn't 1-0 at the death against Algeria. It wasn't dos a cero to Mexico. It didn't come close to equaling the highest moments that Donovan helped orchestrate. The night felt surreal, almost hollow.
Donovan's devotees will say the only stage this could ever have ended was the World Cup. And no matter what Klinsmann says or how many times he could point to the results as vindication, those same fans will argue that the U.S. could have used their No. 10 and, at the very least, the national team owed him that much.
Donovan's detractors will say that this ending is on him. That had he done better, as Klinsmann wished, and pushed to excel in Europe or been more focused on the game than himself in the buildup to Brazil, it would have ended in the proper setting: Playing in a fourth World Cup.
During the week, Donovan said he thought he deserved this night. In truth, he deserved more. A brighter stage, a bigger crowd, better finishing. He is the greatest player to have worn a U.S. men's national team kit, the numbers and the wins say as much. There's no need to couch the praise by calling him "one of" the best ever just to spare the feelings and egos of those that think they should be considered.
He deserved the Elway finish – to walk off into the sunset at his peak and having conquered the tallest mountain of his life. The storybook ending is rare and few all-time greats get that moment. Donovan got a week of TV appearances, an endless branding campaign and a cold night in Connecticut in front of a nice enough crowd.
It felt weird. It felt forced.
It wasn't enough.