It has been a month since Landon Donovan emerged from his self-imposed "break" from soccer, and by all accounts, he is scheduled to rejoin the LA Galaxy next week. The 30-year-old midfielder is the all-time leader in goals and assists for the U.S. National Team and has racked up five MLS Cups throughout his career.
But as Donovan begins to transition out of the prime of his career, there is a perception that he has not lived up to his full potential. The perception stems from his balking at playing in Europe (multiple times). The fact that Donovan has not spent more of his career in Europe leaves many American fans wondering if he has underachieved.
In his recent de-facto press conference at the USC School of Journalism, Donovan admitted that he is burned out from the game, but also implied that he is burned out by the pressure of being an American star. By all accounts, Donovan is a thoughtful, articulate guy, so nobody can discount his comments, but at the same time the pressure he faces is minimal compared to that of his former teammate David Beckham, or New York Red Bull star Thierry Henry.
Maybe it is naive to think that at this point in the United States soccer culture we can produce a player at the caliber of Beckham or Henry. But the reason why Donovan can be considered an underachiever, even as a four-time winner of the U.S. Player of the Year Award, is that he does not want the necessary responsibility of being a star player. And that’s fine. It’s his life, and Donovan certainly does not owe the American soccer fan anything. But it leaves us to wonder: What does it say about soccer in the United States when a player with this mentality also happens to unequivocally be the most accomplished player in American soccer history?
Regardless of how Donovan treats the last chapter of his career, his recent self-imposed exile should make us all take a step back and assess what we expect from our American stars. Sure, Donovan may not be the "chosen one," but in his time American soccer fans have been quick to anoint other promising stars (Freddy Adu, Jozy Altidore, and recently Juan Agudelo) as game-changing players, without making them prove it on a consistent basis. Maybe if we had demanded that of Donovan, he would have never felt burdened by whatever expectations he felt were being placed on him.
So if/when Donovan returns, maybe we should appreciate him for who he is. A great American player, who proved in spurts that he could excel at the European game, but ultimately did not make a serious dent in the global landscape. His return to the LA Galaxy, or the U.S. National Team for that matter, will not change the course of American soccer. He is just another attacking option, like Clint Dempsey or Jozy Altidore, and in the long run the United States will probably need five or six Landon Donovans to be considered a true global force. Let’s just hope that when they come around, we see them for what they are, and rate them accordingly.