For those of us who love playing soccer, regardless of how good or bad we were or at what level we played, this has a nice ring to it.
Landon Donovan, the man who needed at so many points to walk away from the game, couldn’t stay away.
That’s right. Eighteen months after he walked off into the sunset with his sixth MLS Cup in tow, the United States’ greatest ever men’s soccer player is back. Donovan is coming out of retirement and rejoining the LA Galaxy for the stretch-run of the 2016 MLS season.
It’s the story of the season. In case you’ve forgotten how he stacks up, it’s worth noting that Donovan is currently the MLS leader in goals, assists, postseason goals, postseason assists, and MLS Cups won.
The MLS MVP Award? It’s called the Landon Donovan MVP Award. Donovan wasn’t bad on the international stage, either. He stands as the USMNT’s leader in goals, assists, and matches started.
Now, at 34, Donovan rejoins a Galaxy team in sore need of help. In the last two weeks, the Galaxy has seen Robbie Keane, Steven Gerrard, and Jelle Van Damme all miss time through injury. Gyasi Zardes is out for the season with a broken ankle.
Beyond the injuries, the Galaxy also sold lightning rod central midfielder Nigel de Jong just before the expiration of the summer transfer window. If ever there was a time for Donovan to return, this was it.
Donovan’s first retirement, if you remember, came when he was 32 years old. He was coming off of a season in which, in the regular season and playoffs combined, he’d scored 13 goals and had 21 assists.
Clearly, he had plenty of soccer left in him. But one of the reasons Donovan was so fascinating – and disliked by so many – is that he was unusual. Soccer and soccer alone never seemed to fulfill Donovan. He knew there was more to life.
In many ways, he seemed like a perfect candidate for retirement. And he was making a good retiree – buying into Swansea City, working on his coaching badges, and doing broadcast work for the Galaxy and on the Copa America for FOX Sports.
But now, with a new wife and a newborn son, he’s experiencing a feeling we all know. He wants to play. There’s nothing like it.
Of course, there are risks. Donovan hasn’t been in a competitive soccer match in almost two years. How good will he be? Is in his shape? At this point, there’s no way to know.
In his statement, Donovan wrote that he and Bruce Arena agreed that “the expectations would be minimal and he would use me in situations that made sense for the team.”
To start, it sounds like Donovan will be an impact sub. At some point, though, with LA lacking wingers to the point that they started Baggio Husidic wide right against Real Salt Lake on Wednesday night, Donovan may be back in the starting lineup.
And at some point, once he’s fit, and once his competitive juices are flowing, it might not make sense to leave Landon Donovan on the bench anyway.
At 34, Donovan would almost surely be past his best even he had never retired in the first place. But he’s still younger than Keane, younger than Gerrard, younger than Ashley Cole, and younger than any number of great players who have succeeded in MLS well into their late-30s.
Donovan’s last season in the league was one of his best. If he can recover even a fraction of that form, the possibilities for the Galaxy are tantalizing.
Donovan and Keane have always had excellent chemistry. But Donovan and Giovani dos Santos leading counter attacks? Look out.
LA has had all kinds of problems getting their midfield and front-line to work cohesively this year. Donovan’s versatility, and his ability to play wide, should help with that.
Of course, we might never get there. Donovan might be completely ineffective. He knows that. So does Bruce Arena. But it’s a risk that all parties involved – all for their different reasons – are willing to take.
For the moment, it’s short-term. Donovan is only signed through the end of the season, and depending on how the rest of 2016 goes for LA and Donovan personally, the end of the season might as far as the comeback goes.
In any case, though, this will be different. Donovan, for one, will wear number 26 instead of 10. Donovan’s son Talon was born on January 26th, and 26 was Donovan’s first number with Bayer Leverkusen.
The Galaxy is also in a different spot also. LA was favored to win their last three MLS Cups. This year, unless they catch fire in the next month, that won’t be the case.
It’s also worth noting that this is a better league than the one Donovan left. Orlando City, LA’s opponent at the StubHub Center on Sunday, wasn’t even in MLS when Donovan retired.
When he walked away from the sport the first time, it was with a championship. This time, that perfect ending is no sure thing. In the end, though, for Donovan, it came down to a simple, basic desire to play the game again.
Real Salt Lake’s Jordan Allen, who played for Donovan in both the 2014 and 2015 MLS Homegrown games, commented to the Salt Lake Tribune that he noticed that his coach “was in a lot better shape than he was last June.”
Maybe there was nothing to it. But it sure seems like even before the all of the injuries, before it was truly a possibility, Donovan was getting ready to go.
Soccer’s grasp – on Landon Donovan, and on all of us – can’t be shaken so easily.
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