Fans across MLS were left largely shocked last week, when Columbus Crew midfielder Eddie Gaven announced his retirement from professional soccer, after 11 seasons in the league.
Gaven may have suffered an ACL tear in late-May this year but, at just 27 years old and still in the prime of his career, one simply assumed his comeback would be a formality. After all, Gaven was, alongside Gonzalo Huguaín, a key creative force for the Crew and arguably one of the most underrated playmakers in all of MLS, remaining a pivotal piece for the team’s 2014 plans despite the lengthy layoff.
Nevertheless, Gaven stressed in a statement that his retirement was purely for personal reasons and a decision he had been considering with his family for some time.
It thus concludes an impressive career that included more than 278 appearances, 51 goals and 37 assists in MLS, as well as eight caps for US national team, as Gaven played through the burden of lofty expectations to distinguish himself as one of the stalwarts of the league and a genuine fan favourite, even amongst rival supporters.
A product of the Bradenton residency program at the U-17 level, Gaven was hailed as the country’s next soccer ‘phenom’ and earmarked to become one of the most important players for the national team by the time of the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Selected by the Metrostars (now the New York Red Bulls) in the 2003 MLS SuperDraft at only 16 years old, Gaven at the time became the second-youngest player in league history and promptly went about proving why there was such excitement surrounding his name, all the while still living with his parents in Hamilton, New Jersey.
Those lofty expectations were established in only his second game for the club, when Gaven netted the now-infamous winner against DC United, after head coach Bob Bradley exploited a loophole in the league’s substitution rule, which allowed him to bring the youngster on as a goalkeeper – an event which was recently covered in NBC Sports’ ‘MLS Insider’:
From there, the tall and lanky midfielder would go on to cement himself as a first team regular for start of the 2004 season, posting seven goals and seven assists during a 32-match campaign, en route to MLS Best XI honours. That year, Gaven would also become the youngest player in MLS history to be named to the All-Star game, while furthermore earning his first national team cap in a 1-1 draw against Poland at the age of 17.
Gaven would follow up his breakout campaign with another solid season in 2005, scoring eight goals along with four assists, while also playing for the U-20 side at the World Youth Championship. The Metrostars themselves however continued to underachieve in the eyes of the front office and three games before the end of the season Gaven’s mentor, Bradley, was fired.
In his three-year stint with his hometown club (all before age 19), Gaven amassed 16 goals and 12 assists in 69 appearances, but with the team subsequently undergoing a reshuffle under new head coach Mo Johnston in the offseason, he thus found himself traded to the Columbus Crew before the start of the 2006 campaign, in a move which caused a fair amount of contention amongst Metrostars fans.
While he clearly had not established himself as the star and central catalyst for the national team many expected him to have already become, Gaven certainly remained an effective player and one, still at a young age, with much promise.
Indeed, that was evident in Columbus, where, over the next few seasons, Gaven blossomed into a hard-working and versatile weapon, capable of filling multiple roles in midfield or even up top. Those previously noted lofty expectations initially saw him endure a fair share of criticism from fans, though even those detractors eventually endeared themselves to Gaven’s gritty and industrious playing style – the type of characteristics which largely personified the Crew sides of these past seasons.
In their 220 regular-season matches from 2006 to 2012, Gaven appeared 198 times for the Crew, helping the club win the Supporters’ Shield in 2008 and 2009, as well as the 2008 MLS Cup. His 17,252 minutes of regular-season action rank third on the club’s all-time list, while the midfielder’s 2012 season, in which he scored a career-best 9 goals, was arguably one of his best and had some even calling for his return to the national team setup.
Could Gaven have ever made an impact for the US had he been handed a prolonged opportunity? One would certainly be inclined to suggest so, yet no matter how well he performed in MLS, there simply always seemed to be a bevy of options in front of him in the pecking order.
Ultimately, while Gaven may never have quite managed to become the Landon Donovan-like prodigy many expected him to be, there is still no denying that his shortened career was a distinguished one in MLS-terms. As the Columbus Crew fansite ‘Massive Report’ wrote upon his retirement: “His play on the field was much like he was off of it, understated.”
A quiet and unassuming figure, Gaven certainly didn’t stand out physically or possess much pace but his instinctive soccer brain made him both a feared and widely respected figure in MLS. Combined with a work rate which went largely unmatched across the league, Gaven would quite simply show up in the right spots and make all the right decisions. His effort perhaps wasn’t always appreciated by casual observers but, for his team, it certainly made an impact.
We can speculate as to the reasons why a player would choose to end a prosperous career with much gas seemingly still left in the tank but one shouldn’t begrudge Gaven for choosing to end his career on his own terms – a manner which, for a player who never really appeared interested in the spotlight, seems wholly fitting.