You can barely see him, but he’s there. Moving on the periphery, sliding into the best possible position. Take Goal #1, for instance: October 25th, 2000. A fresh-faced, 18-year-old Landon Donovan is anonymously open in the middle of the field, two defenders’ attention on the ball. He makes sure he stays onside and times his run for when that through ball is played. When it is, he springs after it into the box, sidesteps the keeper with a deft, wise-beyond-his-years touch, and then simply slots it home. This was against his country’s greatest rival, Mexico; it was also his first international goal, the first of many more to come.
Donovan’s early USMNT goals reveal what made him so effective. The quality of the picture may be Zapruder-blurry but you can see clearly that he has speed. Speed and instinct. Those are the two things that come to mind when watching Donovan score 57 goals in a row. He’s got such an immaculate nose for the ball and the back of the net. When you combine that with his quickness and intelligence, the goals will rack up. Goal #6 is a great example. Against Poland in the group stage of the 2002 World Cup, Donovan is on the left wing when a ball is headed in front of him. He bursts into action, closing the space between him and the ball. Before it can hit the ground, he weak-foot volleys it past the keeper for his first World Cup goal.
With Landon Donovan about to drop the curtain on his legendary USA Soccer career on Friday vs. Ecuador, I decided to hand out some awards for his USMNT record 57 international goals (I’m not even going to have time to mention any of his record-number assists). Fortunately, I had the above video to assist me in this endeavor. You could take 15 minutes to watch the whole thing, or you could just skip around (the numbers are in the top left corner) and find the goals I highlight. I’d recommend both. To the awards!
Most Significant: #7 – June 17th 2002, World Cup 2002
I know. It’s not what you would think. The goal you’re thinking of is on here, don’t worry. I’m open to discussion, but for my money, this is Landon Donovan’s most significant goal. With a trip to the World Cup quarterfinals on the line and with the Yanks holding on to a tenuous 1-0 lead, Donovan went streaking into the middle of the box meeting Eddie Lewis’ cross with his head to give the Americans that now-familiar dos a cero scoreline over Mexico. He was younger and brasher back then, and ripping off his shirt led us in our euphoria. The USA had made the World Cup quarters for the first time.
Least Significant: #5 – May 16th 2002, Friendly
At Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, Donovan made it 4-0 on the way to a 5-0 drubbing of poor Jamaica one month before the World Cup. It’s a nice little goal, but as far as real meaning goes, it didn’t have much. Ho-hum.
Best Free Kick: #42 – October 10th 2009, World Cup 2010 qualification
From what I saw, he only had three free kick goals, but this is his best. Visiting Honduras and up just one goal during a 2010 World Cup qualifier, he lasered a 71st minute free kick into the upper 90. It’s a gorgeous strike that had to demoralize the Hondurans looking for a win or draw at home.
Easiest (non-PK): #36 – June 15th 2008, World Cup 2010 qualification
Sure, scoring a free kick from about 25 yards may be tough for some of us, but it was Landon’s easiest United States goal. This was because almost no one on Barbados was paying attention. The fourth goal in an 8-0 thrashing two years before the 2010 World Cup featured confusion on the pitch, followed by Donovan calmly knocking it in from deep with a distracted goalkeeper scrambling back into position. You know when Peyton Manning hurries up the offense to force the ref to throw a flag on a defense that has too many men on the field? This was kind of like that.
Best PK: #39 – June 6th 2009, World Cup 2010 qualification
His 35th goal may have been a penalty kick that made him the United States’ all-time goal leader, but this one was more fun to watch. An absolute rocket off Donovan’s right foot to tie a 2010 World Cup qualifier against Honduras. For his many PK goals, we’re used to seeing him nonchalantly hit a low shot into one of the corners or down the middle. For some reason, he decided to really put his laces through this one, blasting it just below the crossbar.
Most Pressure-Packed: #45 – June 26th 2010, World Cup 2010
Down 1-0 in the Round of 16 vs. Ghana due to an early Kevin-Prince Boateng goal, the US were awarded a penalty kick in the 62nd minute. Donovan set the ball on the penalty spot with everything on the line. He had already been the hero of the last match, but we needed his penalty-taking prowess now more than ever. He struck it clean to the far right post with Ghana’s keeper diving the wrong way. Dink! Somehow it ricocheted off the post and rippled the back of the net. It may have seemed like the perfect penalty, a shot the keeper never could have saved. But something tells me Donovan had a brief moment of panic when he saw how wide it was going. All the better for creating the high drama of the World Cup that made him a legend.
Most Thunderous: #30 – March 25th 2007, Friendly
You’ll notice most of Donovan’s goals are pretty tame. They involve him cleverly creating enough space to slot home a low, hard shot/pass (or shass) past the keeper. However, that doesn’t mean he’s not capable of letting it rip from time to time. Although just a friendly versus Ecuador, he had one of his three USMNT hat tricks in spectacular fashion. With Donovan coming in on a late run, DaMarcus Beasley perfectly timed a pass to meet him just outside the box. Landon drove through the ball with ferocity and accuracy, blazing it into the top right corner.
Most Iconic: #44 – June 23rd, 2010, World Cup 2010
You don’t remember this one, do you? I’ll refresh your memory. It was the dying moments of our final group match of the 2010 World Cup. A scoreless draw with Algeria would give the United States three group points – not enough to advance, because England and Slovenia had finished with five and four, respectively. It would’ve been a disappointing exit after getting lucky with one of the easier groups in the tournament. One minute into injury time, with urgency and desperation at their peak, Tim Howard flung the ball out to Donovan and the counterattack was on. Landon flew up the pitch (there’s that speed), dished to Jozy Altidore on the right, who crossed to Dempsey in the middle. With the keeper denying Clint, the ball just sat there outside the six-yard box. Then, from stage right, emerged Landon Donovan (there’s that instinct) and… actually let’s just let Ian Darke do this.
Of all 57 goals, it was one of his simpler finishes, but you could hardly score a bigger goal, ever. Everything about it was perfect: the mad rush up the field, the chaos in the box, the crazy suspense before Donovan got to the ball, the tidy finish, and the head-first dive to the corner flag. In an incredible twist, the strike took the Americans from elimination to the top of the group. US Soccer had their greatest SportsCenter-worthy moment and Landon Donovan became a soccer icon, even more of a household name.
His 57th goal came against Mexico over a year ago in a World Cup 2014 qualifier. I love the story-book neatness of Donovan opening and capping his USMNT goal-scoring career against our biggest rival, 13 years apart. However, Friday he makes his final appearance in a US shirt. He scored in his very first national team match. A goal for the greatest American soccer player of all-time in his last game would only make sense. Thanks for the memories, Landon.