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The U.S. national team and MLS legend opted against a career abroad, and in doing so became a vital figure in the league's development

When Landon Donovan announced his retirement on Thursday, as has been the case most of his career, a sense of all that he accomplished was accompanied by a sense of what could have been.

After all, our country doesn’t produce many world-class players. To this day, we’re still waiting for our first true global superstar.

Landon Donovan could have been that player, but he never was. We should be grateful for that though, because he became something more significant instead.

Many have lamented the fact that Donovan chose to spend the prime – and the great majority – of his career in Major League Soccer. Each accomplishment at home seemed to further underscore the need for Donovan to move abroad and show that he could be a true Global American Soccer Star.

But Donovan’s stints in Europe were few and far between – and always brief. As disappointing as it was for some to see Donovan stay put, his choice means that not only is he the greatest soccer player in U.S. history, but the most important one as well.

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In the early 2000s, Major League Soccer needed Landon Donovan much more than he needed the league. MLS was on the brink of financial catastrophe in 2001, as it folded two teams in an attempt to stem the tide of hemorrhaging money.

That year, Donovan, 19, began his record-setting journey in MLS by moving to the San Jose Earthquakes, where he immediately led the team to a championship.

He would play four seasons in San Jose, winning two MLS Cups, and helping the sport maintain a semblance of momentum after the USA’s historic quarterfinal run in the 2002 World Cup.

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In an era when MLS had few names recognizable to mainstream sports fans, and had little pull in recruiting big-name foreign talent, Donovan was the face of the league.

More than a decade later, David Beckham and Thierry Henry have played in MLS. There are 21 teams in the league and soccer specific stadiums have sprung up all over the country. Fans fill the stands in record numbers.

And Landon Donovan, still, is the face of the league.

Of course, Donovan isn’t the sole reason MLS has made so much progress over the last decade, but he is one of the biggest reasons. It wasn’t just the presence of a name fans recognized, but for other players, the greatest American player of all-time spending the prime of his career in the league gave it a vital air of legitimacy.

“There is no doubt that Major League Soccer would not be what it is today without Landon Donovan,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said in a statement.  “His decision to join MLS in 2001 was a statement to the entire soccer community, at the most crucial time in our history, that MLS could be a league of choice for the best American players.”

Donovan helped build the league to the point where top U.S. national team players now see it not just as a stepping stone, but as a viable proving ground. It’s entirely possible that Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley would not have made their decisions in 2013 and 2014 if Donovan hadn’t made his in 2001.

His exploits with the national team are undoubtedly more memorable, but Donovan’s time in MLS will ultimately prove more meaningful. In the end, the national team will accomplish nothing without a thriving MLS to supply talent.

Of course, Donovan wouldn’t end his career without giving us all a brief answer to that burning hypothetical.

In just 13 games in a 2009-10 loan stint with Everton, Donovan quickly became one of the team’s top players, and a fan favorite. In just a couple months, he seemed to completely abolish the notion that he couldn’t hack it at the game’s highest level.

Fans on both sides of the pond clamored for a permanent move to England but after the expiration of his loan, Donovan returned back to the Galaxy. He had proven a small point in England, but he had more significant work to do at home.

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