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Peterson: Despite being cut, Donovan’s international career legacy is set

Every United States soccer fan remembers where he or she was on that thrilling day.

As for me, I was taking my Algebra II final in high school. Rather than being one of the students who checked their phones to text other students about the test, I was the one who would sneak looks to my phone to receive updates from my sister about the game — the game that will go down as one of the greatest in United States men’s soccer history.

Throughout the game, I kept receiving texts about how close the United States came to scoring. Clint Dempsey scored within the first 30 minutes but was ruled offsides, in spite of replays showing otherwise. Dempsey later hit the post on a run and sent the subsequent rebound just wide with an essentially empty net in front of him. The United States faced many opportunities, but it just couldn’t seem to take advantage and appeared destined for a 0-0 tie, when a win would send the team through the group stage and into the knockout rounds.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m talking about the United States’ group stage game against Algeria during the 2010 World Cup. A tie or loss by the United States meant the end of the World Cup for one of the country’s best-ever squads, but a win would send the country into the round of 16 — a monumental difference, especially for the United States’ historically mediocre program. And if you remember that game, I’m sure you know where I’m going next.

It was still tied 0-0 at the 90-minute mark and headed to stoppage time. The return plane tickets were booked. United States fans that had made the trip to South Africa were surely cancelling their hotel reservations. A promising opportunity — win against Algeria and move on — was about to be wasted and lingering doubts about the state of soccer in the United States would be confirmed.

And then, in a quick 15-second counterattacking flurry, American soccer hero Landon Donovan delivered the Hollywood ending that United States men’s soccer had always wanted, but never grasped. As ESPN commentator Ian Darke quickly proclaimed, “You could not write a script like this.” Donovan’s follow-through goal both secured a berth in the round of 16 and sent wild celebrations throughout America that were completely unparalleled for soccer in the United States.

Donovan, now the United States’ all-time leader in goals and assists, is unquestionably the greatest soccer player to ever don a United States jersey. That fact is undisputed. Not only did he always have a knack for scoring goals, but he seemed to have a talent for scoring the most opportune ones as well: the equalizer against Slovenia in the previous game to earn an all-important point for the United States, a goal against Mexico in 2002 to help put the United States into the World Cup quarterfinals, a clinical counter-attacking goal to put the United States ahead 2-0 against Brazil in the 2009 Confederations Cup and now arguably the most important goal in United States men’s soccer history.

With Donovan on the pitch, there was always interest and intrigue in the national team. Fans love their superstars, and he was the brightest star yet. While we always wondered if some of the greatest American athletes could be lured away from football, basketball and baseball to play soccer, Donovan showed that we didn’t necessarily need our best athletes to switch to soccer to be competitive. At 5-foot-8, Donovan still possessed lightning-in-a-bottle speed and a creative flair that allowed him to run directly at the opposition, something that was always lacking in the American international game.

The goal against Algeria served as the coronation ceremony for Donovan, vaulting him from simply a hero to an American legend after a decade of similarly thrilling moments and astounding plays. The best player delivered on the biggest stage in the most important of moments.

Yet, though no fan at the time would have ever guessed, that would, in all likelihood, be the second-to-last World Cup goal he would ever score. When the United States fell to Ghana in extra time in the knockout stages, the United States’ greatest player prematurely exited the grandest soccer stage of them all.

The legend of American soccer went out not with the bang that seemed to define his storied soccer career, but with a whimper. Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann shocked the country with not only the timing of his 2014 World Cup roster announcement, but also the fact that Donovan, America’s darling, would not be on it. Barring an injury to a midfielder or a forward in the next couple weeks or some age-defying heroics for the 2018 World Cup, Landon Donovan will never play in a World Cup match again.

I’m not here to debate whether or not Donovan should have made the World Cup roster. I may have my own personal opinions, but I will leave that discussion to the more technically knowledgeable soccer media around the United States.

Instead, I want to commemorate Donovan for the charismatic game-changer that he has been for over a decade now and make sure we reminisce on the bang and not the whimper in years to come. He was the “little engine that could,” the homegrown California boy that proved America could produce a soccer superstar, the Superman who would always show up when it mattered most and, simply put, the greatest American soccer player in history.

The fictional Babe Ruth said it best in The Sandlot when he stated that “heroes get remembered, but legends never die.” American soccer had seen heroes before — those who scored important qualifying or World Cup goals. But Donovan was the first legend who scored the important goals, time and time again.

It’s going to be a strange sight to see the United States men’s soccer team compete without Landon Donovan at the World Cup, especially knowing that it might have been four years too soon. However, Donovan’s status as a legend is already clear, regardless of what could have happened at the 2014 World Cup, and the feats he performed on the soccer field will never die.

By sculpting such an eloquent column for the demise of Landon Donovan’s international career, Michael Peterson set the stage for somebody else to write another such column when it comes time for him to step down as a sportswriter. Tell Michael who you want to write that column for him at mrpeters ‘at’ stanford.edu and Tweet him @mpetes93.

About Michael Peterson

Michael Peterson is the football editor at The Stanford Daily. He has served as a beat reporter for football, baseball and men’s soccer and also does play-by-play broadcasting of baseball and men’s soccer for KZSU. Michael is a sophomore from Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. majoring in computer science. To contact him, please email him at mrpeters ‘at’ stanford.edu.