CARSON, Calif. – Landon Donovan has a maximum of four months and 21 games before he is done as a professional soccer player. And then what?
Who knows? Television work? Perhaps, but not just yet. Maybe he will sleep until noon each day. Probably, he will embark on some global wanderings. He'll likely coach kids. Maybe he will let himself go, although at around 150 pounds he has a ways to go.
So who knows? Not him, that's for sure. And that, for Donovan, is the whole point of planning to retire at age 32.
After a decade and a half of a regimented life in soccer and the demands placed upon him from outside and within, retirement at the end of the current Major League Soccer season will bring a sense of liberty he has never had and, only recently realized, he wanted.
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Donovan's Thursday press conference, where he spelled out the reasons for calling time on both his nine-year connection with the Los Angeles Galaxy and his life as a player, was less about the athlete and more about the man and what he will do next.
"People think we show up and play the game and sit around all week until the next one," Donovan said. "For 16 years, almost every decision in every hour of every day has revolved around how what I was doing would prepare me for training or a game. The freedom to do whatever you want is very exciting to me."
The media gathering at the Galaxy's StubHub Center stadium on Thursday was in many ways a microcosm of Donovan himself and the character he has grown into. He mentioned the word "happiness" no fewer than 20 times and was at his most compelling when discussing his pursuit of it.
He talked about his wish for a broader existence, one unhampered by the realities and restrictions that come with being a soccer pro (albeit ones offset by millions of dollars). There was a bit of the old fire, especially when quizzed about United States head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, as Donovan stated he "would not let one man's poor decision" affect such a critical personal choice.
Klinsmann's decision to leave him off this summer's World Cup squad will long rankle, but Donovan did concede he hasn't had his full heart in soccer for several years.
"I have to live the life I want to live," he said. "That's an important thing to go by, to make decisions that are best for you. It doesn't feel the same; there is not the same passion and energy. My gut just told me it was right. To some extent I felt obligated to keep playing. When that obligation part goes away I realized it was just [a relief].
[Photos: Landon Donovan through the years]
"That was a big thing for me. Letting people know just made me feel better. I felt like I was holding on to this secret. It has allowed me now to really enjoy myself. I would rather have a couple of months of enjoyment than a couple of years of mediocrity."
Right now, Donovan is a man chasing things he doesn't have. He has more goals, games, assists and accolades than he can remember, but he feels he has missed other experiences. He never went to college, never had a typical group of buddies with whom to spend large amounts of downtime, never had a relationship that wasn't dictated to by team schedules and so on.
Now he wants some of those things, even if that's not what people really want to hear. The guy on the street who works long hours for not enough pay and must sacrifice time with his family will have little sympathy for him, but that's OK.
Everyone has their own take on Donovan, just as they always have. But whatever you say or feel or think of him, you must admit that his retirement, like much else, was done on his own terms.
The timing, in the middle of his current Galaxy contract, wasn't perfect. There was no last World Cup appearance to sign off. There is no guarantee of leaving on top, no matter how well the Galaxy is playing now.
"It was just time," he said.
The impending start of the post-Donovan era will spark an odd feeling with soccer fans in the U.S. American soccer's popularity is still a new phenomenon and a vast majority of the core support has grown up with Donovan as an ever-present figure.
He wasn't always what everyone wanted – everything from his comments that verged on brutal honesty to his decision to stay in Los Angeles to his sometimes-mixed performances for the U.S. men's national team. But he was always there and now he won't be.
It is a reminder, perhaps, that we never get younger and time ticks on waiting for no one. Donovan chose not to wait for time and its diminishing effects, taking the decision into his own hands and dictating his own terms to end his playing career.
He is at the age when soccer players sadly and inevitably wilt, and this announcement will mean that whether he wins another MLS title or not he can enjoy what will serve as an extended farewell tour between now and the MLS regular season's end.
While Donovan has frustrated many, he is a beloved son of soccer in this country. You could see that much in the public outcry when Klinsmann cast him aside to end Donovan's chances of playing in a fourth World Cup.
Donovan has been central to seminal "Where were you?" moments for U.S. soccer fans, like his Man of the Match performance against Mexico in the 2002 World Cup's round of 16 or his dramatic, stoppage-time goal against Algeria eight years later.
When countless European clubs came knocking in the second half of his career, he made a conscious decision to stay home. Why? One reason is because he says living in California made him happy. The other was to help build the league into a brand that enjoys unprecedented stability.
"I felt it was much more important being here doing that than going somewhere and being lost in the shuffle in Europe," said Donovan, who has won five MLS Cup trophies in 14 seasons. "For me that was the perfect fit."
Now is not the time to discuss Donovan's legacy – that will come at season's end and long into the future – but he says he wants to be remembered as a good teammate, a good influence on the locker room, a guy coaches could look to and find a leader. Before long, he won't be any of those things anymore. Instead, he will have the chance to be a version of what he wants to be – a regular man with a life to lead.
Whether it is the right way or not, whether it is what people want or understand, or even if it is something he later regrets matters less than the fact that Landon Donovan is not trying to make the perfect decision.
He is trying to do it his way – and trying to be happy.
- Sports & Recreation
- Landon Donovan
- Jurgen Klinsmann