Nearing Retirement, Landon Donovan Puts Soccer In Perspective

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Major League Soccer's playoffs are in recess while various national teams engage in friendly competition. When they recommence, the Western Conference Finals will find the Seattle Sounders, featuring Clint Dempsey, facing the Los Angeles Galaxy, led by Landon Donovan. Donovan's recent remarks about his imminent retirement have caught the attention of Bill Littlefield.

It may be that Landon Donovan is the best soccer player the U.S. has developed. It also may be that calling any player in a team sport "the best" distorts the entire undertaking.

Wherever he stands in the pantheon of players, after a 16-year professional career that has seen him accumulate all manner of championship rings, awards and distinctions, Donovan will retire after the LA Galaxy's final game this fall, perhaps as champion once again.

It's refreshing to hear Donovan talk about putting his soon-to-be former profession in what he calls its "relevant place."

Bill Littlefield

He recently told Mike Foss of USA Today, "I will know for the first time in 16 years, I won't have to worry about next year."

He also said, "There are lots of people in all walks of life whose career is their identity. I think we have a problem in our society where what we do becomes who we are. I don't believe that, and I don't follow that way of thinking."

My guess is that at some point next year, Donovan will find something to worry about. I hope he doesn't. I wish the best for him. But we are born to trouble as the sparks fly upward, whether or not we retire as the greatest soccer player the U.S. has produced.

But that second thing he said ... that's really something, isn't it? What we expect our great athletes to start thinking about when they retire is how they're going to fill their days while waiting for a call from the Hall of Fame. Donovan will receive that honor, which is perhaps why he isn't thinking — or worrying — about it.

[sidebar title="U.S. Stars Donovan, Jones Highlight MLS Playoffs" width="630" align="right"] SI's Grant Wahl joined Bill Littlefield last week to break down the MLS playoff field.[/sidebar]

"I put soccer in its relevant place," Donovan has said. "It's exciting. It's inspiring. It's emotional. It's entertaining. But really, there are a lot more things that go on in life that are more important."

The inclination to see professional athletes as role models is pernicious. The contention that because they make a lot of money and receive acclaim, these athletes have a responsibility to conform to the Boy Scout oath is silly. But it's refreshing to hear Donovan talk about putting his soon-to-be former profession in what he calls its "relevant place," and his assertion that "there are lots of things that go on in life that are more important" would seem to provide what educators sometimes call a teachable moment.

What those "things" turn out to be in Donovan's life after soccer remain to be seen, but his mention of them suggests that checking in on what he's doing during his retirement will be interesting, even encouraging.

An editorial note from Bill Littlefield: In an earlier version of this commentary, I neglected to note that Landon Donovan's remarks were in an article from USA Today by Mike Foss. I apologize for that oversight.

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Bill Littlefield Host, Only A Game
Bill Littlefield was the host of Only A Game from 1993 until 2018.



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