In 1999, U.S. Soccer took a risk that would make or break the next decade and a half of the national program. As part of a $1.5 million plan to compete at that year's under-17 world championship, U.S. Soccer recruited its 20 best players to train together at the IMG Sports Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
Landon Donovan was a short California kid at the camp -- he maxed out at 5-8 as an adult.
This experiment was what Donovan and the U.S. needed.
Donovan was living with his brother, sister and single mother, Donna Kenney-Cash, a special education teacher, while playing for a youth club in Rancho Cuacamonga, Calif., called Cal Heat. He was not about to break through in the soccer world on his own.
American soccer itself was in limbo. MLS had 12 teams then and was about to start its sixth season. The U.S.'s three straight World Cup appearances at the time were three more than the program's total from 1954-1986, but the nation finished dead last in 1998. Executives, coaches and players were still trying to figure out the formula to create elite talent.
In Bradenton, Donovan was surrounded by the necessary talent to put him over the top as he played alongside future senior teammates DaMarcus Beasley, Oguchi Onyewu, Kyle Beckerman and Bobby Convey. It was a turning point for U.S. Soccer and Donovan, who announced his retirement in a Facebook post Thursday.
At that U-17 championship, the U.S. finished fourth -- ahead of Germany, Spain, Uruguay and Mexico. Donovan scored three goals and was named the best player of the tournament over such future stars as Ghana's Michael Essien, Brazil's Adriano and Spain's Mikel Arteta. Donovan and Beasley received two of the tournament's Adidas Golden Balls. At the youth level, the United States and Landon Donovan were on the world's radar.
Shortly after the tournament, Donovan was signed to a four-year deal worth $400,000 with Germany's Bayer Leverkusen. Donovan's Cali swag was curbed in the Bundesliga. He could not find his stride with Bayer Leverkusen and spent much of 1999-2001 bouncing around the club's second-, third- and fourth-division clubs. Despite living the supposed dream in Europe, Donovan maneuvered to be loaned to the MLS. He joined the San Jose Earthquakes for the 2001 MLS season.
Donovan rekindled that 1999 flame just before heading to the 2002 FIFA World Cup in South Korea/Japan. He netted two goals as the U.S. made a Cinderella run to the quarterfinals. He again won an award in an international tournament, earning the Best Young Player Award. Donovan left the World Cup as a household name in the United States -- rare for a soccer player -- and around the world.
For the next seven years, Donovan became as big of a celebrity as an American soccer star playing the United States could be. In MLS, he won an MLS Cup, an MLS MVP, an MLS Golden Boot and made three MLS Best XI squads. At the national level, he served as the face of the team for the 2006 World Cup and won the Honda Player of the Year six times from 2002-2009.
Off the pitch, Donovan moved home to Southern California when he signed with the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2005. He married a budding actress, Bianca Kajlich, and brushed shoulders with Galaxy import David Beckham. Donovan was the catalyst U.S. soccer needed. He had skills on the field and bought into improving the image of the sport off the field. Donovan's remaining in MLS was a plus for the domestic plight.
Perhaps most importantly, Donovan remained an athlete the average American could relate to. He was not a big guy, he did not walk around with an ego and he played the game with love and passion. Donovan was a California kid who grew up kicking around a soccer ball with his single mother. While he was known as "Landycakes" in Germany for his failed spells with Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich (Donovan played six games in on loan in 2009 for then-coach Jurgen Klinsmann), Donovan remained the most recognized name in the United States. His presence in MLS encouraged rising soccer players to view the league as a destination. With Donovan's growth, MLS grew.
By 2010, Donovan was in now-or-never mode. His glow from the 2002 World Cup had faded and after failing to reach the knockout stage in 2006, U.S. Soccer was stagnant. At 28 and supplied with a supporting cast deemed superior than either of the previous two World Cup squads, Donovan had to deliver to cement a meaningful legacy in American soccer.
Donovan marked his territory. He scored three times in four games, including a firecracker in a 2-2 tie versus Slovenia and historic stoppage time goal against Algeria that sent the U.S. through the group. After all the mockery of his failed career in Europe and talk of a cop-out career in MLS, Donovan came through. With it, he inspired American fans and youthful American soccer players. He steered the nation in the right direction.
Donovan retained his stardom in 2011, but went on a soccer sabbatical in 2012. He won a CONCACAF Gold Cup Golden Ball Award in 2013, but was dropped from the World Cup roster in 2014 when the final cut was made from 30 to 23 players. Klinsmann's decision to release the veteran was questioned by many, and perhaps the arguments will never end.
Despite the World Cup cut, Donovan has closure on his career. This was evident during Wednesday's night MLS All-Star Game, as all of Donovan's worlds seemed to collide.
It was fitting the match featured the MLS All-Stars, the best players from "The League Donovan Built," against Bayern Munich, one of his former clubs from the league that treats him like a laughingstock. The Klinsmann-Bayern Munich-USMNT connections only made this a bigger deal for Donovan.
Donovan entered in the 48th minute and made his presence known. He netted the game-winning goal in the 70th minute. He left the turf in the 71st minute and the MLS All-Stars held on for a 2-1 victory. Donovan earned the game's MVP Award -- his second such title–the first coming in his first MLS All-Star Game in 2001.
Meanwhile, questionably aggressive challenges by Will Johnson and Osvaldo Alonso overshadowed the result of the exhibition. Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola refused to shake MLS All-Stars manager Caleb Porter's hand and stormed into the locker room. Guardiola's sportsmanship was condemned by American broadcasters, including former USMNT players Alexi Lalas, Taylor Twellman and Kasey Keller after the match. The tackles may have been a bit heavy for an exhibition, but they were by no means vicious challenges.
After the match, ESPN had the MVP, Donovan, who also served as a network analyst during this year's World Cup, for on-the-field and desk interviews. It was poetic. European soccer, specifically German soccer, looked pathetic. Bayern Munich's whining was classless and belittled the MLS All-Stars' win. Donovan, the game's hero, and MLS' hero of the past decade and more, could only smile on his pedestal.
"I'm proud to be a part of this league," Donovan said after the match. "For many years, those of us that were in this league were sort of looked down upon for staying here and playing here.
"This was a big moment for our league. And we understand the game doesn't count for anything. We know Bayern are in their preseason and their best players didn't play. But they were still competitive and those guys wanted to win just like we did."
Wednesday night was representative of the league, the sport and the culture Donovan built in the United States. When the MLS All-Stars took the field, the demeanor was different than past years. With Clint Dempsey, Thierry Henry, Michael Bradley, Tim Cahill, DeAndre Yedlin, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Maurice Edu, Dom Dwyer, Graham Zusi, Matt Besler and Nick Rimando, along with Donovan (not to mention Jermain Defoe, Robbie Keane, Omar Gonzalez and Kyle Beckerman all sat out with injury), the MLS All-Stars have a different swagger. The MLS All-Stars have been playing European clubs every year since 2005. Never has the MLS had such a star-studded roster as it did Wednesday night. The confidence was evident.
The MLS All-Stars did not let Bayern Munich, featuring a plethora of World Cup champions from last month's tournament, push them around. They played to win whether Bayern Munich cared or not. Yes, play did get a bit chippy as the MLS All-Stars worked to prove themselves.
"We certainly didn't mean anything negative,'' Porter said. "Our players have nothing but the utmost respect for Bayern."
Donovan was right in the thick of things, captaining the squad during his 23 minutes on the pitch. For him, there was a bit of an extra emphasis on his performance and the result. He had a chip on his shoulder.
As for the messy aftermath of the match, there was something inspirational on the MLS sideline. In the United States, Americans could watch the game with confidence in the MLS players' action. The challenges in question were not clean, but far from malicious. In a nation obsessed with contact sports such as football, basketball and hockey, the physical play could be commended. It did not feel like the MLS All-Stars had done anything all that wrong. Although the game was an exhibition, this did not signal a lack of intensity to fans.
Last week, Paul George suffered a gruesome injury in an exhibition for USA Basketball. Exhibitions are necessary tune-ups for players and entertainment for fans, and injuries and physicality are part of the game. Guardiola's reaction was embarrassing and selfish. Despite all Guardiola's accomplishments -- he won two Champions League Finals at Barcelona -- his actions Wednesday were classless.
From an American perspective, this only encourages a devotion to American style of soccer -- which Donovan popularized -- with a physical nature and vertical movement. The U.S. is not going to play tiki-taka, a Guardiola staple, focusing on long, complex possessions.
Such comparisons can be made to other sports. In basketball, Spain, U.S.'s greatest challenger in recent years, plays spread out with constant movement. At the Olympics, the U.S. has asked LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul to fastbreak, go one-on-one and use power moves. This is more "American."
In baseball, Japanese hitters focus on short strokes for contact and Japanese pitchers build a series of off-speed pitches for their arsenal. American hitters tend to feature a greater emphasis on power and American pitchers care more about velocity.
Landon Donovan brought the "American way" to soccer. Spending most of his career in the midfield, Donovan was the general of the USMNT, sending long passes and using his speed to push the ball. He got physical when necessary. Donvan's Algeria goal was a prime example of the American way. He powered the ball down the field, sending Jozy Altidore. Donovan, Altidore and Dempsey crashed the net at full speed. The sequence was not pretty, but it got the job done.
American sports fans want to see no nonsense from their nation's players. Donovan failed in Europe, was bashed by the media after a poor 2006 World Cup and Beckham treated him poorly in Los Angeles. Donovan always got back out on the field and pushed through. He was never known to take dives and was constantly referred to as a good teammate.
The American way, or the Donovan way, rubbed off on his teammates. When the USMNT went to Brazil this summer, even without Donovan, it had a distinct culture. While other nations riffed with the media, the U.S. kept it low-key. Despite all the talk of the U.S. having no chance to get out of the "Group of Death," the Americans prevailed. They did not flop when the going got tough, and they gained the respect of the world. More importantly, the team gained the respect of American fans.
In his post-game interviews Wednesday night, Donovan used words like "game," "field" and "soccer." He speaks in American dialect and furthers that American identity. Donovan is the USMNT's all-time leading goal scorer with 57 tallies and his 156 caps are second behind Cobi Jones.
ESPNFC's Alex Labidou tweeted Thursday asking if Donovan's likeness could be used for a new MLS logo. That would be fitting. No player represents the American domestic league more than the guy who legitimized it.
Wondering if @MLS can give Landon Donovan the "Jerry West" treatment on its soccer balls moving forward. Just a thought....
— Alex Labidou (@LabidouESPN) August 7, 2014
In Brazil, players wear No. 10 as a tribute to Pele. In Argentina, they wear it for Diego Maradona. In the United States, Americans will wear No. 10 for Landon Donovan.
Perhaps Donovan planned to announce his retirement in the moments after the MLS All-Star Game on Wednesday. The fitting glory of the MVP Award, win over Bayern Munich and maturity of the MLS team changed his plans. He needed to take it all in. The announcement could wait.
The night could also give Donovan closure on his career. No, he did not win a World Cup. No, he did not succeed in Europe. No, he did leave an international legacy.
But on Wednesday, Donovan could see what he accomplished. He built the foundation for American soccer. The National Team can compete with American style and American culture. MLS is a legitimate league, where legitimate players can play, and like Donovan, they do not need to wait for the twilight of their careers. American fans can get excited for a sport with an American identity. American children, no matter what background they hail from or what size they max out at, can become soccer stars.
Apparently, a lot of them are named 'Landon' too.
The rise of the baby name "Landon" in the US, in which Landon Donovan played a part pic.twitter.com/ZwsaFmlC2i
— darren rovell (@darrenrovell) August 7, 2014
This is far from the end for Donovan. At the end of his retirement statement, Donovan says, "As we enter a transformative time for the sport, I will do everything I can to help the continued growth of soccer in the United States. I look forward to making a difference, pursuing my passions and meeting all of you along the way in this next phase of my life."
Do not think for a second Donovan is gone from the soccer spotlight. His desires to play the sport have clearly decreased, as seen by his sabbatical. To some, 32 may seem like a young retirement. To Donovan, it is enough.
Landon Donovan is a general just as much as he is a soldier. He may be tired of being on the ground, but he is excited to call the shots. Donovan built MLS and U.S. Soccer. His work as a player is done. His work as an executive, coach or entrepreneur is only beginning.
Wherever life takes him, he will do things one way: The American way. Of course, a synonym for that is The Donovan way.
-- Follow Jeffrey Eisenband on Twitter @JeffEisenband.