The face of American soccer has grown droopy.
It appeared on television again Wednesday night, in close-up, with sad, bloodshot eyes, looking haggard and melancholy. Nary could it muster a real smile for the cameras.
For a second time in a week, Landon Donovan, US Soccer's golden boy since his breakout 2002 World Cup , stepped into the spotlight to announce that he no longer liked it there. Essentially, the 30-year-old admitted that he was burned out.
"I need time where I can just pause and breathe and rest, let me body heal, let my mind refresh," Donovan told ESPN's Julie Foudy in a pre-taped interview. "I honestly don't exactly know what the future holds, and I'm okay with that. ... I don't feel any obligation to play, I don't feel any responsibility to play. I've put in a lot to this whole thing. I'm proud of what I've done and what I've been a part of. But I can't fake it."
He spoke of wanting to travel without the bother of having to play soccer on his trips. Of wanting to explore and meet people. Of doing all sorts of things that aren't playing soccer which he's excited about. He sounds for all the world like a man allowing himself to wonder what retirement might be like. And like a man who likes the sound of what he's dreaming up.
When the Los Angeles Galaxy's playoffs are over, whenever that may be, Donovan will unplug. He doesn't know how long he'll be gone, or whether he'll be back at all.
Shocking in their own right, these revelations were made much less surprising when framed by the interview Donovan gave to ESPN FC, published just last week. "Right now, I need time to think and that is impossible to achieve while I am playing," he told Roger Bennett.
"I need to determine if I want to play, and if the answer is yes, I need to work out where and for long. I am at a point where I realize that if I am to come back I need to do so with the right mindset," Donovan added.
He said it twice. If.
Should he indeed call it quits, and it sounds a lot like he's preparing the public and giving advance notice of his plans, it would hurt. It would hurt the Galaxy and Major League Soccer , a league short on household names. It would hurt the United States national team.
Donovan has played in just eight of 20 United States games since the Gold Cup in the summer of 2011. Because of the onset of heretofore rare injuries and club responsibilities - which might or might not have obligated him to withdraw from the national team - he has already begun to fade from the international picture.
Others stepped in. The United States made do.
Some say Donovan, the team's all-time scoring leader and its consensus best player ever, isn't indispensible anymore. But he was badly missed in early World Cup Qualifiers as the United States slogged through a third qualifying phase that should have been a formality. Aside from leadership and recognition, Donovan remains a strong crosser from the wings and capable of carving up an opposing defense with his runs and dribbles, skills at present lacking on the national team.
But one must accept, too, that Donovan's sporting life was one lived faster that that of other stars. He's had to be a star on the field and off, hauling a sport desperate for relevance along with him. "LeBron James and Kobe [Bryant] don't have to promote their sport like we do, and it is exhausting," he told Bennett.
So it's natural that he reached the end of his tether more quickly than others. He played hard for a decade, almost never was injured, and burned the candle at both ends by spending three of the last four off-seasons on loan with Bayern Munich or Everton . He inevitably broke down this season. The first creaks of an aging body will make a man think harder about his tomorrows.
A seemingly premature retirement will be deemed a right well-earned.
United States head coach Jurgen Klinsmann holds out hope. "Landon is always in our preliminary roster that we have to send out to clubs two weeks in advance," he said on a conference call on Thursday. "He's always in our plans."
But, as Klinsmann had told FOX Soccer on Sunday, "Whatever that decision will be, we should respect it. It's his call, it's his life, it's his career."
If Donovan hangs up his boots for at least a while, and I suspect that he will, it will be our loss. And, from the sounds of it, his gain.