He shot to stardom in Japan and Korea in 2002 and scored his country's most famous goal in a generation eight years later. He's been called "arguably the greatest" United States national team player ever by one of the current squad's promising talents. But as the U.S. begins the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying this week, Landon Donovan won't be there.
As for what that means, we're all about to find out.
The U.S. will play at Honduras on Wednesday (kickoff 4 p.m. ET, with TV coverage on beIN Sport) in both teams' opening match of the so-called "hexagonal," the six-team final group of World Cup qualifiers in the North and Central American region. As Ives Galarcep at Soccer By Ives points out, Wednesday's match will mark the first time since July 1, 2001 that Donovan has missed a "qualifying match that matters."
That amounts to 20 qualifying matches over more than 11 years and three World Cup cycles. Donovan did not make an appearance in two 2005 qualifiers, but at the time of those matches, the U.S. had already qualified for the 2006 World Cup.
The implications are as impossible to ignore as Donovan's sterling resume. At 20, he played a starring role as the U.S. advanced to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals. At the 2010 Cup, he scored the dramatic late winner against Algeria as the U.S. advanced to the second round.
He is the U.S. team's all-time leader in goals (49) and assists (48). He is a four-time winner of the U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year award and seven-time winner of the Honda Player of the Year award. With 144 career appearances for the senior team, he is the most-capped active American player.
But in the Jurgen Klinsmann era, Donovan has been a bit-part player, and mostly by choice.
Since Klinsmann took over from Bob Bradley as U.S. coach in July 2011, Donovan has played eight times for his country (the U.S. has played 22 total matches under Klinsmann during that time) as he takes what amounts to be a break from the international game.
According to U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley, Donovan's absence is no longer unusual to the American internationals. Said Bradley (via SBI):
First and foremost you want what’s best for him and obviously he felt like he needed some time to figure out what was next for him and how to go forward. We all support that, but at the same time life goes on here. We’re excited about the guys we have here. We’re confident in the group we have and that’s life. That’s soccer.
Bradley would probably never say it, but the current U.S. team is now more his than Donovan's. Bradley, who plays for AS Roma in Italy's Serie A, has become one of the team's most indispensable players along with goalkeeper Tim Howard of Everton and midfielder/forward Clint Dempsey of Tottenham Hotspur. Any of the three could be considered more influential to the team than Donovan at the moment.
We texted back and forth since the MLS Cup final. …The last time was just recently in December when I texted him and told him since he didn't make up his mind until that point he wasn't in my plans for the January camp or the Honduras game. He responded that he understood because he still doesn't know what he wants to do. I said, "Well, if you feel comfortable, why don't you come by to the camp and say hello to the guys? Otherwise, let me know whenever you want to sit down and chat." That's how we left it.
Personnel changes are made for every team, of course. In fact, the last time the U.S. played a hexagonal qualifier, which was in October 2009 (also against Honduras), the team had defender Oguchi Onyewu, midfielder Stu Holden and forwards Charlie Davies and Conor Casey on its roster (h/t The Shin Guardian).
Donovan, furthermore, is only one player, though he is probably the best American player of his generation and perhaps the greatest American player ever. But at 30 (he turns 31 in March), it's fair to question whether Donovan is still the player he was in 2002 or even 2010.
By the time the 2014 World Cup arrives, Donovan will be 32. If he plays, that Cup will almost certainly be his last, and the U.S. will begin in earnest the process—which in some respects has already started—of moving on from the Donovan era.
Whether that begins now or in 2015, Klinsmann said he expects a stiff test from Honduras, which qualified for the 2010 World Cup.
"I personally saw them in South Africa in games and the only thing they were lacking was the confidence to beat one of the bigger nations, to really believe in it at the end of the day and playing-wise they’ve done well," said Klinsmann (via USSoccer.com).