By Simon Evans
MIAMI, Aug 7 (Reuters) - When the history of the growth of soccer in the United States is written, the soon-to-retire Landon Donovan will undoubtedly go down as the country's first true star in the game.
But while Donovan's role in putting U.S. soccer on the map is beyond doubt, his legacy will also contain questions over whether he was truly the best American of his era given his reluctance to test himself in one of Europe's top leagues.
With 57 goals for the U.S. national team in a career that spanned 156 games, three World Cups and four CONCACAF Gold Cup winner's medals, there is no question Donovan, who announced on Thursday his plans to retire after the 2014 Major League Soccer season, ends his playing days as the most successful player to suit up in the Stars and Stripes.
Quick, skillful and clinical in front of goal, Donovan was a creative and attacking threat that turned the often workmanlike U.S. teams into a regional power and an increasingly respected force on the international scene.
With five MLS championship titles, three for the L.A. Galaxy following two for the San Jose Earthquakes, and a league record 138 goals, there is no disputing that Donovan has also been the most influential player in MLS's 18-year history.
"Landon Donovan is one of the most significant figures in the history of soccer in the United States," said Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena. "His influence on MLS and soccer in this country will continue to be felt for many years to come."
But while for American basketball or American football players it is enough to be the best in the domestic league, soccer's status as a global game provides a different benchmark.
The top soccer leagues in the world are found in Europe and Donovan's apparent lack of desire to prove himself in the week-to-week battles of the very best in the world leaves a question mark over his legacy.
In 1999, Donovan signed a six-year contract with German club Bayer Leverkusen but he spent most of his time loaned back to San Jose and he made just seven appearances in the Bundesliga before signing with the Galaxy.
The forward tried again in 2008, joining Bayern Munich on an initial loan deal but with Donovan talking about possibly staying on longer term. After a disappointing stint, Bayern decided against keeping him.
It was a different story during two loan spells with English Premier League club Everton, where Donovan quickly became a favorite with the Goodison Park fans and earned positive reviews for his displays which showed a work-rate and willingness to defend as well as attack that was not always evident in his game.
But Donovan's choice of a long-term contract with the Galaxy made it tough for Everton or another club to buy him and while he clearly enjoyed his time in England, he did not appear distraught at returning to California and playing in MLS.
The absence of a consistent presence in a top league will inevitably factor in to any evaluation of Donovan as the 'greatest' American soccer player since others, such as Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and Claudio Reyna, are able to point to successful seasons in Europe.
For the national team he will be best remembered for his excellent performances in the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan where he won 'Best Young Player' as the United States reached the quarter-finals, their best finish in the modern era.
Eight years later, his last-second winner in a 1-0 victory over Algeria ensured Bob Bradley's team reached the second round and produced one of the most memorable moments in U.S. soccer's growth as the celebrations across the country were captured in a video which went viral online.
Not a typical athlete, Donovan, complaining about burnout, took a break from the game in late 2012-early 2013 which saw him skip key World Cup qualifiers and which probably influenced national team coach Juergen Klinsmann's controversial decision to leave him out of the squad for the finals in Brazil.
The 32-year-old's relationship with Klinsmann always appeared strained and that was not the only time that he found it difficult to work with one of the biggest names in the game.
David Beckham's arrival at L.A. Galaxy overshadowed Donovan and his decision to question the Englishman's commitment in the media caused some tension, which was eventually resolved as the pair united to bring the Galaxy an MLS title in 2012.
But for most American fans, Donovan will be remembered as the player who took the country to a new level in the international game and helped MLS grow into an established part of the U.S. sports scene.
He will depart with no obvious heir apparent for either the national team or in MLS - and whoever emerges as the next American soccer star will have a tough act to follow. (Reporting By Simon Evans; Editing by Frank Pingue)