Returning Donovan Ricketts is LA's renaissance man
Lost in the fanfare that surrounded the arrival of Steven Gerrard and the signing of Giovani Dos Santos last month was the way the defending MLS champion LA Galaxy handled a potentially devastating loss in goal.
Starting goalkeeper Jaime Penedo was demanding a contract extension, so coach and general manager Bruce Arena had a difficult decision to make: He could either force the Panamanian to keep playing under the deal he'd signed in February and keep an unhappy player in the net, or appease Penedo and possibly set a dangerous precedent.
Or he could let him go.
When Arena opted for the latter, waiving the 33-year-old in late July after almost two seasons, Penedo's sudden departure shocked a veteran locker room.
"The thing with Jaime was a surprise to me, as well," Arena told ESPN FC Thursday in a phone interview.
For most coaches, it would have been a scary proposition. Goalkeeper is a crucial position on any team, especially one with title ambitions. But while Arena was caught off guard, he wasn't overly worried.
That's because the five-time MLS Cup winner thought he might have an ace up his sleeve in the form of former Galaxy keeper Donovan Ricketts, who played with LA from 2009 -- Arena's first full season with the club -- through 2011.
The Jamaican won two MLS Cups, as well as the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award in his second season, before moving on to Montreal, Portland and, this season, Orlando City. (He was also named the top backstop in MLS with Portland in 2013.)
LA GALAXY vs. NYCFC (SUNDAY, 3ET -- ESPN/Watch ESPN)
- Carlisle: LA Galaxy vs. NYCFC is about more than DPs
- EXCLUSIVE: Lampard on MLS life and playing Gerrard
- Video: Lampard on Gerrard | Lampard: Not on holiday
- Burley: Lampard's consistent| Lampard, Gerrard in U.S.
- EXCLUSIVE: Dos Santos is settling in at the LA Galaxy
- Video: Dos Santos: I have matured | Very comfortable
- McIntyre: Ricketts happy back in LA | Carlisle: Poku fever
The 38-year-old played in the expansion club's first 10 games of 2015, then lost his spot to Tally Hall. With Ricketts riding the bench in Florida, Arena saw a chance to reacquire him.
"We didn't want him to leave in the first place," Arena said of Ricketts, who was traded after the 2011 campaign only because the big-spending Galaxy were tight against the salary cap. "I've always wanted to bring him back, and I'd spoken to Orlando a few times this year about Donovan. So when the opportunity arose, we jumped on it."
Meanwhile, Ricketts didn't need much convincing.
"Paul McDonagh, the GM in Orlando, called me in and said he'd given Bruce permission to speak to me," Ricketts said. "Bruce asked me how I felt about coming back to the Galaxy, and there was no hesitation. Going from a situation where you're not playing to one where you're going to play, I was thrilled."
So were his new teammates, many of whom weren't really new at all, given that nine members of the current Galaxy roster were with the club during Ricketts' first stint in Southern California.
They include defenders A.J. DeLaGarza, Todd Dunivant, Omar Gonzalez and Leonardo, while two other former teammates now serve in executive roles: Jovan Kirovski as technical director and Chris Klein as team president.
"It could've been a bad situation," Gonzalez said of losing Penedo. "But it's been a smooth transition. A lot of us have played with [Ricketts]. We know what he's capable of. He's a calming presence back there."
While Ricketts may be getting on in years, Arena believes he hasn't lost much, if any, of the ability that has made him one of the best keepers in MLS over the last seven seasons.
"In some ways, I think we've upgraded the position on our team," Arena said.
There are some stylistic differences between Penedo and Ricketts, an elite shot stopper who is 4 inches taller than the man he replaced. But while Ricketts' game has been called unorthodox -- he likes to roam far off his line and sometimes can turn simple saves into adventures -- any tweaks the Galaxy's defenders had to make were minor.
"There's really not too many adjustments," Gonzalez said. "I'll be winning less head balls because he'll be able to come out and gobble them up. And Donovan's great with his feet, so hopefully we can keep possession with him by playing it around the back from side to side. There's definitely not a dip in the quality of player between Jaime and Donovan."
But adding a player midseason is about more than sheer ability. Personality matters, too. Despite the hasty manner in which Penedo left, Arena and others went out of their way to praise the veteran's character. Ricketts is also a proven commodity off the field, a popular, fun-loving jokester who helps keep things loose.
"When Bruce came to the Galaxy, he made sure to put together a great locker room, and Donovan was part of that group," said Gonzalez, who also arrived in 2009. "It's one of the most important things."
Since Ricketts' return, LA has won three straight games. He has found an apartment close to where he used to live and said it feels as if he's never been gone. If the Jamaican can help the club successfully defend its crown later this year, his signing will be seen as crucial.
"He's a player we all love and respect, and he still has the ability to be an outstanding goalkeeper in this league," Arena said. "I think it worked out great."
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.