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The man considered the greatest male soccer player in this country played his final match for the U.S. tonight. Landon Donovan got a standing ovation from fans and hugs from his teammates as he left the field after playing 40 minutes in a friendly match against Equador. 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. Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Tonight's farewell always was going to be complicated.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Growing up in California, Donovan began playing soccer at age five, scoring seven goals in his first game.
GOLDMAN: Try as U.S. soccer might to tug at our heartstrings with a lushly produced video tribute released this week, there was no getting around the great snub. In May, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann left Donovan off the 23-man roster heading to the World Cup. It stung, and Donovan said at a press conference today, he still believes he should have been in Brazil. But he said this, too.
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LANDON DONOVAN: It was also good for me to say, you know, it's not always going to go your way. 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.
GOLDMAN: U.S. coach Klinsmann sounded the right tone, as well. Yesterday, Klinsmann said, Donovan raised awareness of the game in this country to new dimensions. But try as he might, Klinsmann couldn't completely hide the snag in their coach-player relationship. Donovan's career included stints in Europe, but the bulk of his work and success happened in the U.S. Klinsmann lamented that Donovan didn't test himself more overseas.
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JURGEN KLINSMANN: As a coach, you always wish, you know, for that extra piece that you see in somebody. I think he had that opportunity, and if he's fine with it, that's OK. You know, I think that could've gone even further than that.
STEVE SAMPSON: You know, a lot of people been very critical of the fact that, you know, he chose the easy route, coming back to the United States. But, you know, that route was not so easy.
GOLDMAN: Steve Sampson coached Donovan on the L.A. Galaxy, when Los Angeles won the Major League Soccer title in 2005. Sampson says coming back to the U.S. from Europe wasn't a guarantee that Donovan would be successful. But he certainly was, with five MLS cups and counting and a record 144 goals and counting. And Sampson says, Donovan's domestic success made it that much more meaningful for U.S. fans when Donovan went back out into the world as a homegrown star on the national team.
SAMPSON: The respect that the U.S. men's national team has gained since 1990 to today - Landon really catapulted that respect.
(SOUNDBITE OF WORLD CUP ANNOUNCEMENT)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The U.S. have numbers. Altidore squares it. Dempsey's missed it. Donovan has it. From hope, there is glory. It's Landon Donovan.
GOLDMAN: Of his record 57 national team goals, none was more stirring than the end-of-game score against Algeria that kept U.S. hopes alive at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. And it was vintage Donovan. Statistics of when he scored those 57 goals show most came in the last 14 minutes of games. It was a lethal skill that earned him ovations here and the antipathy of fans from rival nations, like Mexico. Armando Aguayo does Spanish language color commentary for L.A. Galaxy games. He's watched over the years as Donovan helped supercharge the rivalry between neighboring countries.
ARMANDO AGUAYO: Most of the people hate him because he was like a nemesis to all the Mexican national teams.
GOLDMAN: Actually, hate-love - Aguayo says, Mexican fans have admired Donovan, as well, for all he's accomplished. After tonight's final U.S. appearance, there's still MLS work to do as the Galaxy head for the playoffs. And as nice a moment as tonight was intended to be, it'll be hard to trump an MLS title led by America's homegrown soccer hero. There'd be nothing complicated about that finale. Tom Goldman, NPR News.
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