As Landon Donovan prepares for what could be his final MLS game tonight, he will walk out on the pitch wearing the same number he wore when he started out at his first pro club, Bayer Leverkusen.
For most of his career, Donovan wore number 10. But when he returned from retirement in September teammate Giovani Dos Santos was wearing ten, so Donovan had to search for another number.
“My wife suggested 26, we were texting one day, and she said ‘what about 26?’, I said ‘why 26’ and she said that’s the day that Talon was born,” Donovan told LAGalaxy.com “That resonated, and then I looked back at numbers that I had worn, the first number that I wore at Bayer Leverkusen when I was 17 was 26. It’s a nice way to close the circle.”
Donovan’s Bundesliga Career
After being named the best player at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in 1999, Donovan signed with German Bundesliga club Bayer Leverkusen. Signed to a 6-year contract, he found it a very different experience than being the best player on his teams in the United States.
“When I got to Leverkusen, calling for the ball, guys would look at me and purposely not pass the ball [to me],” Donovan told Grantland.com. I had been the star player on my high school team. I had been the guy that everyone counted on [back home].”
But his time playing for reserve Leverkusen squads also installed a backbone to Donovan’s playing style.
“I just couldn’t understand why my game was not working. There’s no creativity or flair in the game here,” Donovan told Sports Illustrated in 2000. “People kept telling me I have to battle–that’s the German theme in life. Finally, I quit playing like a sissy and decided to fight and run.”
After not making the Leverkusen’s first squad, Donovan engineered a loan in 2001 to MLS’s San Jose Earthquakes. There he won a 2 MLS title with the Quakes in four seasons. After the 2004 MLS season, Leverkusen recalled him to play for their first squad. However, he missed the MLS and wanted to come back to America.
“For me, it’s all about being happy,” Donovan told the USA Today in a 2005 interview. “For me, soccer is fun; it’s happy. If I don’t have that, I’m useless.”
Success in America
MLS acquired his rights, and he signed with his hometown Los Angeles Galaxy. With the Galaxy, Donovan established himself as arguably the best MLS player in the league’s history and perhaps the best US Soccer player ever. He won 4 more championships with the Galaxy and had scored over 170 goals and 150 assists in his career.
But with the MLS playoffs looming, Donovan could be once again facing the final game of his career. The LA Galaxy play Real Salt Lake in a one-off playoff match.
The Galaxy, beset by injuries to stars Robbie Keane and Steven Gerrard have struggled down the stretch only scoring five goals and recording one victory to end up in third place. Donovan, who joined the team in September has tried to regain his fitness and has only played one full match, the last game of the regular season against FC Dallas.
The team will rely on his offensive skills and veteran leadership along with the team’s recent string of strong defensive results to grind out results in the playoffs. “We’ve finally figured out, I think, that if we do those things the right way, we have a real chance,” Donovan told the Los Angeles Times in an interview.
Even with all the pressure that Donovan will face tonight, he will embrace the lessons he learned long ago in Germany and fight and run for one more title.