"I think in the end we're all just trying to do our part to keep building the game."
That's what Landon Donovan told U.S. Soccer as part of a tribute video the organization put together to celebrate the amazing career of the best soccer player to ever represent the red, white and blue.
There's been little debate about that over the years, at least in terms of field players for the United States men's national team. Donovan is the best American to play the beautiful game, but if you look at the roster put together by Jurgen Klinsmann for Donovan's testimonial match on October 10 in Connecticut, this send-off is as much a look to the future as it's become a celebration about the past.
For U.S. Soccer to grow into a new era, it seems only fitting for it to end—and begin—this way.
The most successful cycle in the history United States soccer is officially coming to a close on a Friday night against Ecuador. While we traditionally think about each cycle in soccer as going from one World Cup to the next—when you visit the history section of USSoccer.com, for example, and click "view all matches," the site only shows the team's history as far back as…2012—the beginning of this cycle for American soccer really began back in 2000, as Donovan made his debut with the full national team.
When Landon Donovan hangs up his boots after a brief appearance and celebratory send-off against Ecuador, a bygone era of American soccer will officially end.
The player, and this time in American soccer, deserves a proper farewell.
It's certainly fair to suggest the end already came for Donovan, when Klinsmann unceremoniously cut him from the World Cup talent pool before the United States team left for Brazil. Asked Thursday if he had spoken about that decision with the U.S. coach, Donovan was his customarily abrupt self.
Even if Donovan wasn't on the World Cup roster, it was still his roster. It was Klinsmann's decision to send Donovan home, but it surely felt like that was Landon's team, even if only by omission.
There were far more stories written and words read about Donovan's absence from the squad that went to Brazil than anything written read or said about the 23 players who did make the trip. When the team arrived in Brazil, people wanted to know why Donovan wasn't there, what Donovan had to say about Klinsmann's tactical decisions during the tournament and then, of course, what Klinsmann had to say in response.
Even when Julian Green scored a goal in his limited minutes at the tournament, or DeAndre Yedlin turned himself into a bona fide American wunderkind with his unexpectedly extended time down in the jungle, questions about Donovan's omission lingered until Belgium ousted the Americans. Chris Wondolowski's missed sitter as time wound down became as much about Klinsmann's tactical decisions as it did Donovan watching from home with the rest of us.
In many ways, the 2014 World Cup felt like it focused more on Donovan in his absence than if he were to have made the team at all. (Note: To be fair, the World Cup started out mostly about Donovan but ended up being more about Tim Howard, another aging American hero who has elected to take a year off—and who knows if he'll ever come back, honestly—from international competition. A new era, indeed.)
Even though Klinsmann had moved on from Donovan as the face of American soccer, it's unlikely any of us felt we were ready for that to happen yet.
At the very least, American supporters felt somewhat short-changed without the proper send-off for a player who, himself, helped change the perception of American soccer around the globe. We are more of a threat internationally than ever before, and that's thanks in large part to what Donovan has done while representing our soccer interests. Well, had done, I suppose.
Before 2000, we were just happy to be invited to the party. In 2002, we relished the role of soiree crashers, and while things didn't entirely go according to progression in the subsequent decade in terms of international success at the World Cup level, the consistent level of respect given to the American game seemed to grow.
Perhaps Klinsmann wants the most credit for that recent increase—and perhaps he deserves it—but it wouldn't have happened without Donovan, Howard, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and others like DaMarcus Beasley, Carlos Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo leading the charge.
How many of those players will be on the United States roster at the next World Cup? Any? Dempsey seems like he aged a dozen years in the last three, and while he's been somewhat rejuvenated in MLS, it's hard to believe he can be as productive in four years as he is today. Bradley will have to take over the mantle as America's soccer face, and to do that he'll need to play better—and playing the right position will help—than he did in Brazil.
And then what? Who's left in terms of America's soccer identity? Howard may still be around after his year off, but his form right now for club isn't making anyone clamor for a return anytime soon. Jozy Altidore still remains an enigma for both club and country, and players like Wondolowski and Kyle Beckerman felt like placeholders the entire World Cup run this year, so it's impossible to expect them to be the face of much of anything moving forward.
Klinsmann certainly sees this and has turned this cycle into an immediate youth movement. He has put together a young mix of talent, some of whom most American fans will have never heard of until they're put on the full national team roster.
This squad for Donovan's send-off match has 13 players (12 with Green's departure from camp due to injury) who were born in the 1990s. There are at least six players on this roster put together by Klinsmann that have fewer than three international caps, and at least a dozen with no more than 10.
I won't lie—two players are on this roster against Ecuador I had literally never heard of until it came out this week. There's surely another list of half a dozen more no-name newcomers tucked in Klinsmann's back pocket to pull out for the next friendly, or the one after that.
The future is now, even as the U.S. honors the past.
Now, with a stable full of youngsters as eager to prove themselves on the international stage as Donovan was 14 years ago, Klinsmann can send off the American legend in a match that will inevitably become as much about who can be the next Donovan as paying proper tribute to the original.
The future, after all, must be now for Klinsmann and the United States. Yet no matter what happened in Brazil—from Donovan's ill-timed sabbatical, to a public spat with Klinsmann, to the Gold Cup, to his inclusion in World Cup camp, to his eventual ouster— the future of American soccer couldn't truly begin until Donovan, and his era, were properly sent off.
"In all the years I've been a part of the national team," Donovan told U.S. Soccer, "the one quality we have that is better than anybody else in the world is our belief and our ability to just keep going, no matter what the circumstances."
Circumstances always seem to change. Perhaps none more than Friday night, in what should be a fitting, celebratory end to a wonderful career, with a glimpse at a future Donovan had an enormous part in creating.