A true star and a genuine No 10

Traditionally, soccer starting lineups feature players who wear jerseys numbered 1 through 11, with each number referring to a particular type of position.

No 1 is always the goalkeeper, for example. No 3 is a stout defender. No 9 is a lone striker. But No 10 is the most special. It is the playmaker’s jersey, the jersey worn by a team’s soul and pulse and engine. It is the jersey worn by the star who can sprinkle magic at any moment. Pele wore No 10. Diego Maradona wore No 10. Lionel Messi wears No 10. Neymar wears No 10.

For much of the past eight years, Landon Donovan wore No 10 for the United States national team. It was fitting: Donovan, more than any player in US soccer history, was his country’s heartbeat. He worked wonders with the ball, to be sure, but it was always more than that with Donovan. He did not just shine for the US; he guided it.

Last Thursday, Donovan, 32, announced that he would retire at the end of this Major League Soccer season. Understandably, this immediately prompted a slew of retrospectives and discussion about how Donovan will be remembered by soccer fans, with opinions covering his breakout performance in the 2002 World Cup; his seminal goal in the 2010 World Cup; and his stunning, if somewhat abrupt, separation from the national team in the weeks before this year’s tournament in Brazil.

In truth, it cannot be so simple. Donovan has long been the face of US soccer and, like Michael Jordan in basketball, he will remain one of its icons even in retirement. His legacy is one of origination, of experimentation; he was a trailblazer, but by necessity.

Donovan did not follow any one path to mainstream sports stardom in the US but that was, at least in part, because there was no obvious path for a soccer player to follow. Donovan turned professional in 1999 and will retire in 2014; in other words, he began his career when soccer in the US was a test kitchen and will finish it with his sport a well-established restaurant.

There are statistics, sure: Donovan retires with 57 national team goals and 58 assists, both the highest in team history. His five World Cup goals and 12 World Cup games played are the most for an American man. And his goal in the Major League Soccer All-Star Game last Wednesday made him MLS’ highest scorer in the regular season (138 goals), the playoffs (22) and the All-Star Game (six).

They are gaudy totals and admirable numbers. But none of it is as important as this: Donovan tried things. He pushed boundaries. In a sport with no established trajectory, he did not shy away from his own individuality.

He went on a few different loan spells during MLS offseasons and dazzled occasionally, most notably with Everton in the English Premier League in January of 2010. But Donovan made it clear that his focus was on playing in the US, where in recent years he settled in as a leader for the Los Angeles Galaxy.

In many ways, that decision to stay at home — which ran counter to the typical thinking in soccer culture — was exactly what the United States needed.

Donovan ultimately served as a bridge from the niche era of US soccer to one in which meaningless exhibition games are on ESPN and World Cup games set ratings records. In times of transition, a foundation is critical; for the growing mass of casual soccer fans over the past decade, Donovan was that constant.

He also was himself. The most memorable stars are always the ones who are genuine, and so it was meaningful — and necessary — that Donovan was never a phony. When he was irritated by some of the accoutrements that came with having David Beckham as a teammate in Los Angeles, he said so.

When he felt he needed a break from soccer — even during a World Cup qualifying cycle — he took one and accepted the consequences. When he disagreed with Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision to cut him from the US team just before this past World Cup, he did not hide his feelings. There was no mystery with Donovan or his motivations — his emotions were right in front of us.

“For the last few years I haven’t had the same passion that I had previously in my career,” he said at a news conference in Carson, California. “To some extent I felt obligated to keep playing.” That is gone now. He highlighted his gratitude for the US fans, and he will get a deserved farewell tour during the final months of this MLS season.

Perhaps, too, even Klinsmann will offer the chance at a send-off appearance with the national team. If that happens, Donovan will surely relish the opportunity to wear the No 10 jersey one last time.

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