Landon Donovan's comeback is a risk worth taking for injury-hit LA Galaxy
Now that Landon Donovan has come out of retirement to rejoin the LA Galaxy, there is one question: Landon, what took you so long?
It always seemed like Donovan retired too soon. When the confetti rained down at StubHub Center on Dec. 7, 2014, his sixth MLS Cup now in his possession, Donovan was only 32 years old. He was physically in good shape, and clearly still one of the best players in MLS.
"You don't retire at 32 unless you have to," former U.S. international Kasey Keller told ESPN FC via telephone. "You retire from the national team maybe because that's going to take so much time and energy, so you think, 'Maybe I just concentrate on my club career.'"
But with Donovan, continuing his life as a professional soccer player was never about the legs, or the heart, but the head. Toward the latter part of Donovan's career, there seemed to be almost a love/hate relationship with his chosen profession, and there was a good reason for this. Donovan admitted to me in an October 2014 interview that prior to the sabbatical he took in early 2013, "I was [depressed], and I was burnt out and getting up and going to training every day was really weighing on me."
For that reason, the long slog that can at times characterize the pro athlete's existence seemed one that Donovan was willing to leave behind, and since calling it quits he has always looked content with his new life. There was his marriage to Hannah Bartell and the birth of his son, Talon. He seemed to enjoy his broadcasting work and had begun acquiring his coaching licenses.
But while players and coaches talk of the grind, there are plenty of things about being a pro soccer player that are missed: the adrenaline rush of game day, the camaraderie of teammates, the roar of the crowd. There are financial incentives as well. The siren call has now proved to be one that not even Donovan could ignore, saying the chance to play in front of his newborn son played a role in his decision to return.
So now a different set of questions is being asked. Having taken nearly two seasons off, one can only assume that his head has cleared, his conflicting feelings about being a pro now gone, or at least diminished. But what about the legs? Now 34, how much rust has Donovan accumulated? How will he recover? His return carries with it some risk. There's a chance, or even a strong likelihood, that Donovan will not be the player that he was.
"It's completely doable," said Keller. "But I remember there were times when Chris Henderson would do the beep test with [the Seattle Sounders] in preseason and he had been retired for years, and be one of the top finishers in the beep test. But that doesn't mean he can still play. It's a different ball game thinking, 'I'm fit, I watch these guys, and I [coached] the Homegrown Game and I'm better than these guys.' That may be, but those guys don't have the expectation of being Landon Donovan or the paycheck of Landon Donovan."
Regardless of how those questions get answered, the risk is still one worth taking for Donovan, and especially the Galaxy. The best-laid plans of manager and GM Bruce Arena haven't completely gone awry, but through no fault of his own, the season was threatening to go off the rails. Gyasi Zardes will be sidelined for the rest of the regular season with a broken foot. Steven Gerrard is dealing with a hamstring injury. Robbie Keane has played just 13 of the Galaxy's 28 regular season games. With the injuries piling up, the Galaxy put together a deal in the span of two weeks that now sees Donovan return to the five-time champions of MLS.
And if anyone can get Donovan in the frame of mind needed to jump back onto the field, it is Arena. The Galaxy head coach has almost always managed to coax the best out of Donovan, be it with the Galaxy or the national team. Arena has provided Donovan with a cocoon of trust, the needed benefit of the doubt.
There is also the rather exciting prospect of seeing Donovan on the field with Giovani Dos Santos. The two players are similar in so many respects. Both have shouldered the weight of high expectations from a young age, especially as it relates to their respective national teams.
For Donovan, it has been there since he emerged out of the U.S. U-17 residency program in Bradenton, Florida. For Dos Santos, the hopes were heaped on him ever since he led Mexico to the 2005 U-17 World Cup, and later signed with Barcelona. His career has meandered somewhat since, but this season in L.A., Dos Santos has largely lived up to his Designated Player billing, with 12 goals and nine assists.
There is some question as to how well the two will mesh, especially since Dos Santos has thrived in a more central role. But Donovan's versatility makes it more likely the two will complement rather than impede each other. The results could be devastating for the rest of the league.
There are no guarantees of course, and the fact that the league's MVP award is named after Donovan creates a certain level of awkwardness. But having Donovan back in the league will no doubt generate buzz that MLS can't get enough of. And he may even lead his beloved Galaxy to a sixth MLS Cup.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.