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Landon Donovan: A Great Man?

There are no Great Men.
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Landon Donovan. (Photo: Photo Works/Shutterstock)

Landon Donovan. (Photo: Photo Works/Shutterstock)

On Friday evening in East Hartford, Connecticut, Landon Donovan will wear the United States men's national team soccer jersey for the last time. The 32-year-old is retiring after more than a decade on the squad, a career that saw him score 57 goals—18 more than Clint Dempsey, his nearest competitor—and give out 58 assists, a ridiculous 36 clear of second place Cobi Jones. In the context of American soccer Donovan, clearly, is a great soccer player.

But is he a Great Man?

In the 1840s, Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle proposed his Great Man Theory. It posits that "the history of the world is but the biography of great men," men who have been "divinely inspired" to perform exceptional tasks. Carlyle goes on to write about men including Muhammad, Shakespeare, and Napoleon who he believes fit into his all-encompassing theory. In short, the idea is that history is a product of the influence of certain people—and not the other way around. The world as we know it would be demonstrably different were you to somehow go back in time and remove them from the equation.

Donovan scored vital, timely goals, the types of tallies that vaulted the U.S. Soccer program and Major League Soccer into a higher level in our collective consciousness.

So, would American soccer be what it is today without Landon Donovan?

Donovan is certainly the most-influential (male) figure in the history of American soccer. The face of the sport in this country for the past decade burst onto the world stage at the 1999 Youth World Championship when he became the first American to win the Golden Ball as the tournament's best player. Throughout his career, he displayed an otherworldly level of pace, stamina, and finishing ability that one might have credited to a bit of divine inspiration. While he never displayed the exemplary leadership capabilities of Carlyle's best examples, preferring to spur on the American squad by example rather than fiery rhetoric, Donovan had an honesty about him during interviews and promotional spots that he earned commercial sponsorships and ESPN airtime.

And Donovan scored vital, timely goals, the types of tallies that vaulted the U.S. Soccer program and Major League Soccer into a higher level in our collective consciousness. There was his tally against Mexico at the 2002 World Cup, his countless scores in MLS Cups or other big spots, and of course his last-second strike against Algeria that sent the Americans into the second round of the 2010 World Cup and Stars and Stripes fans into histrionics:

If there's a U.S. Soccer Great Man, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone other than Donovan who qualifies any better. But here's the thing about the Great Man Theory: it's wrong.

Herbert Spencer makes this argument most persuasively, writing in The Study of Sociology: "You must admit that the genesis of a great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown.... Before he can remake his society, his society must make him." The Great Man Theory ignores the context in which the Great Men exist.

All of these caveats apply to Donovan, both on and off the field. Before he could head the ball home in 2002, he needed Eddie Lewis to cross it his way. Before he could slam home his shot against Algeria, he needed Clint Dempsey to get stuffed, not to mention Tim Howard to outlet the ball to Donovan to start the play and Jozy Altidore to cross the ball to Dempsey. Way back in 1999, Donovan needed his teammates to help him get to a place where he could lift the Golden Ball trophy, just as he needed his youth coaches to teach him how to play and a host of other people to assist him along the way. It takes a village, you know?

Landon Donovan was, and continues to be, a great soccer player. But if anything, he's just another example of weakness of the Great Man Theory. It’s hard to imagine U.S. soccer without him—but it’s even harder to imagine Landon Donovan without U.S. soccer.