Landon Donovan watched his life flash before his eyes. His legs were spread and his arms folded across his chest, having just played his final game for the USA national team. Thousands of fans stayed behind on a cold autumn night in Hartford to watch with him, all eyes trained up at the big screen over Rentschler Field, where a tribute video rolled and flashed like a vivid dream.

The great moments of Donovan’s time in an American jersey burst to life. He was surrounded by his family and friends. A respectful hush fell over the press box, punctuated only by the tap of keyboards as reporters hunted for just the right words to describe the international career of a man who changed the game in America. “This is beyond my wildest dreams,” he told the crowd. “As a human being, to feel this kind of love and support is incredible.”

It’s hard to tell exactly when the tears began to fall. Maybe it was when Donovan, now 32, watched his 18-year-old self, hair bleached a soft yellow, thrust into his first match. It was against Mexico, in front of a huge and hostile crowd at the LA Coliseum, a short drive from his family’s California home. He wasn’t expected to play, only to sit on the bench, to watch and learn. But fate sometimes makes room for grand occasions, and when Chris Henderson, an honest and anonymous old pro, went down injured, the moment came for a teenager with spots on his face.

From fresh face to feted hero
Donovan scored his first goal for the US goal that day. It contained an elegance and arrogance that was a hint of things to come. He rounded the Mexican keeper, no hint of panic, or the eagerness of a boy, and pushed the ball home, hopping with his penultimate step. He sprinted away in celebration, falling into the arms of grown men like Jeff Agoos and Tony Meola, suddenly his team-mates. They smiled like proud older brothers.

“He’s done more for soccer in America than anyone else,” said Jozy Altidore, the man Donovan handed the captain’s armband when he was substituted to a roar of appreciation in the 41st minute of the 1-1 draw against Ecuador on Friday. Donovan’s team-mates on the day, a hodgepodge of youngsters who all owe him a debt of gratitude, were desperate to get him the ball. “I wanted Landon to score,” Mix Diskerud told FIFA.com, before adding with a grin: “Maybe I was looking for him a little more than normal."

There was to be no goal for Donovan on this final night. His early header forced Ecuador’s Maximo Banguera into a sprawling save. Minutes later, a cosmic groan tumbled from the crowd of over 36,000 when the US captain, wearing his No10 jersey, hit the post. It was a reminder that the game can be cruel, too. When Donovan walked off the field, he shook hands with his coach Jurgen Klinsmann and shared a clumsy embrace. Here was the man that broke Donovan’s heart, slashing his name from the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ squad and denying him a chance to go out of the game on top.

The moving images on the screen kept rolling by. Donovan grew into a man. His peroxided hair turned its natural dark tone. Lines grew around his eyes and his voice deepened. Goals flew into the net. Records broke. Celebrations erupted as the United States, redefined by the artistry, vision and panache of Donovan, became more than just outsiders. Portugal were beaten in 2002 and the US playmaker became an icon at just 20. He orchestrated another defeat of Mexico and pushed the States into the quarter-finals of the 2002 World Cup in Korea/Japan. There were disappointments and tears in 2006, in Germany, and the pure elation of 2010, when Donovan’s goal in the dying moments against Algeria sent the side through to the Round of 16.

By now, Donovan’s hair had begun to thin. Trophies were lifted. More CONCACAF Gold Cups than it’s worth counting. There were individual honours, too, more than any American player in history. He scored 57 goals in 158 caps, setting up 58 more in a 15-year career. No other American comes close.

It really is hard to pinpoint just when tears began to moisten the cheeks of Landon Donovan as he stood on the pitch watching all that he’d done. He soaked in every second. He embraced his family. He cried and smiled. He didn’t want it to end. He lingered on the pitch, even as most of the fans had waved their final goodbyes.