He didn't want to play Friday, but in the end, U.S. soccer legend Landon Donovan was glad he did.
The setting was a farewell game to honor the retiring 32-year-old forward, a friendly game between the U.S. team and Ecuador. Donovan played only 40 minutes and didn't score — although he came close, when he bounced the ball off the goal post in the 25th minute — and the game ended in a 1-1 tie.
But the adoring crowd of more than 36,000 in East Hartford, Conn., chanted his name and gave him a minute-long standing ovation when he came out. By the end of the match, when a retrospective of his career played on the video scoreboard, Donovan could no longer hold back the tears.
"As a human being, to feel that kind of love and support is incredible," he said after the video. "I've put a lot into this game, however many years, and tonight feels like it was worth it. I'm very grateful."
And what a career it has been: Fifteen years as a professional, a record 57 national team goals — one a stunning end-of-game triumph against Algeria that moved the U.S. forward at the 2010 World Cup — and five MLS cups. Landon is "perhaps America's greatest ever player to sign off," says USA Today.
The match gave fans and teammates a chance to honor his career and perhaps wash away the bad taste of Donovan's exclusion from the World Cup this summer in Brazil, says NPR's Tom Goldman.
U.S. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann left Donovan off the 23-man roster, a cut that left Donovan livid and that he said still hurts. At a press conference earlier in the day, he said he still believes he should have played in Brazil, but that the experience helped him learn about himself.
"It was also good for me to say, you know, it's not always going to go your way," Donovan said. "And it took time for me to get to that place, but after a while, I said, maybe this is going to be a good thing."
The rift was behind his reluctance to play in a U.S. team finale. He and Klinsmann hadn't spoken since that day in May when the coach told him to go home, but when he came off the field Friday the pair shared a handshake, a few warm words and a hug — albeit an "awkward" one, as Yahoo Sports and others described it.
"Fans repeatedly chanted 'Thank You Landon!' and they gave him a minute-long standing ovation when he was replaced by Joe Corona in the 41st," reports the San Francisco Chronicle.
"I am proudest of this, what we have built. It wouldn't be like this 10 years ago," Donovan said, according to USA Today. "I believe things work out the way they are supposed to. It has been an emotional week. I am going to miss this."