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This was Landon Donovan being told, for the first time in a long time, that he wasn't good enough for a soccer team.

U.S. soccer's aging lion prowls the pitch in North Carolina 

Falling star: Landon Donovan playing with the LA Galaxy against the Carolina Railhawks

Photo by Andy Mead

Falling star: Landon Donovan playing with the LA Galaxy against the Carolina Railhawks

Twelve years ago, the United States men's national soccer team traveled to Cary to train at the newly minted State Capital Soccer Park (now WakeMed Soccer Park) in advance of the 2002 FIFA World Cup. Several team members took part in a now-infamous fashion photo shoot entitled "The Boys of Soccer."

Wearing a purple Jacquard shirt, silk-wool pants and a middle finger ring, a 20-year-old Landon Donovan, then a fresh-faced rising star, cast his come-hither gaze at the camera while clutching the kettledrum fountain, his lower lip plunging into the aqua stream.

A month later, Donovan made his World Cup debut in America's shocking win over Portugal. He scored two goals in the 2002 World Cup and was named Best Young Player of the tournament. Two more World Cups and more than a decade of acclaim for club and country followed. Winning U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year four times and becoming the all-time leading Major League scorer, Donovan was the sine qua non of American soccer.

Last week, the U.S. national team advanced out of the so-called "Group of Death" into the knockout stage of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. A win over Ghana, a draw with pre-tournament favorite Portugal and a loss to Germany slipped the U.S. through, to the delight of both diehard and (at least temporarily) converted American soccer fans.

Meanwhile, a continent away, a 32-year-old Donovan and his LA Galaxy traveled to Cary to face the Carolina RailHawks, an American second division club. It was the fifth round of the U.S. Open Cup national soccer competition, which dates back to 1914 (the FIFA World Cup was founded in 1930). It wasn't the Cup competition Landon Donovan expected to play this month.

Almost four weeks earlier, U.S. head coach Jürgen Klinsmann left Donovan, the all-time U.S. leader in goals and assists, off the national team's 23-player World Cup roster. Now, as Donovan sees even his "Captain America" moniker being usurped by Clint Dempsey, the closest he's come to this World Cup is as a talking head TV analyst, his uniform a coat and tie worn with the panache of a reluctant child posed in a Walmart portrait studio.

As the U.S. national team competed in stadiums filled by tens of thousands of jingoistic partisans, with hundreds of millions more watching around the globe, the most popular American soccer player of his generation trotted onto a converted practice field in Cary, lined with 3,000 locals who occupied grassy embankments and temporary metal bleachers.

A nearly 10,000-seat soccer stadium stood nearby, but because of annual field resurfacing, the evening's game moved onto the adjoining, optimistically named "Koka Booth Stadium." The spectacle resembled a Babe Ruth-era barnstorming tour, when Ruth's "Bustin' Babes" and Lou Gehrig's "Larrupin' Lous" would ride the rails into small towns to entertain a few thousand fanatics in quaint ballparks.

In order for Donovan, fellow 30-something star Robbie Keane and the rest of the Galaxy to travel between the locker rooms and the field, they had to traverse the lone small section of permanent grandstands, navigating a gantlet of stargazers, camera phones and eager but respectful autograph seekers.

This was Donovan's first U.S. Open Cup match since 2011 and only his second since 2006. The Galaxy had treated matches against Carolina in 2012 and 2013 as chances to give reserve players some competitive minutes. Why play this match, at this time, in this peculiar place for a soccer legend?

Perhaps the three-week MLS break during the World Cup's group stage created a need for Donovan to hone his fitness before the Galaxy's regular season restart four days later in California. Perhaps, as Donovan told reporters the previous Friday, the Galaxy were "sick of losing to Carolina," the team that eliminated them from the two prior U.S. Open Cups—losses Donovan did not compete in.

Maybe his appearance was psychologically motivated. Was this the act of a proud warrior, excluded from the pinnacle of his profession and the milieu of his greatest success, motivated to prove his worth to anyone who doubted it? Indeed, after failing to score any MLS goals this season, Donovan netted three in the two MLS games immediately following his World Cup snub.

Maybe it was an act of public penitence for a player whose self-imposed sabbatical in early 2013 caused him to miss three U.S. World Cup qualifying matches, drawing the ire of Klinsmann and American soccer fans and calling into question his dedication to the national team.

Or maybe Donovan was being forced at last to gaze, like Dorian Gray, at the sobering reality of his athletic mortality. Donovan's exclusion from the World Cup roster wasn't like his self-imposed exile in Cambodia or when he eschewed the uncertainties of European football for a career in MLS.

No, this was Landon Donovan being told, for the first time in a long time, that he wasn't good enough for a soccer team. It stung.

And so, while the likes of Aron Jóhannsson and Julian Green joined Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore on the world stage, Donovan came to North Carolina to ping shots at a goal backstopped by netting to prevent balls from vanishing into an encroaching pine forest.

On the opposite end of the pitch, fans periodically chanted "I Believe That We Will Win," the U.S. supporters' rallying cry du jour, which on this night doubled as a cheer for the hometown 'Hawks. The cruel irony hung heavy in the humid Carolina air.

Donovan came on in the 64th minute against Carolina, a contest that reached 120 minutes of regulation and overtime. The Galaxy dominated the stats, but the RailHawks won the game 1–0. It was the third straight year they'd beaten LA, a team that has won the two of the last three MLS Cup championships.

The outcome notwithstanding, a chastened Donovan insisted he had fun.

"I can't speak for everyone, but I enjoy it," he said of the austere setting. "It's different and I thought the crowd was great. The field was great. The weather was great. It was an enjoyable game except for the result."

He spoke with the assembled media after the match, but only after a Galaxy PR flack announced that Donovan wouldn't answer questions about the World Cup or the U.S. national team. Later, he stopped to sign autographs on his way to the team bus, but not until he inserted ear-buds to drown out the rabble of the hoi polloi.

A goal kick or so away, across an adjacent parking lot, stood that specter from Donovan's past: yes, the water fountain.

Donovan recently filmed a video chronicling how he intended to pass the workday during the World Cup. Clad in his U.S. team uniform, he plays foosball and answers phone calls in the empty Galaxy offices. Inside his cubicle, the 2002 water fountain picture wallpapers the screen of a laptop computer.

The image, once intended to titillate, is now an object of derision, even self-parody. For the "Landycakes" crowd, it has become a symbol of Donovan's abstruse detachment.

Today, the once shimmering bubbler still functions. But a ring of rust now creeps through the veneer of this erstwhile fountain of youth. Like its most famous patron, it still flows steady. But its sheen has faded with time.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Landon in winter."

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