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 By Tom Marshall

Landon Donovan's low-key Leon debut first step of monumental challenge

LEON, Mexico -- It's February 2018 and Landon Donovan has just made his Liga MX debut.

If that occurrence had been predicted by someone one year, two years or even 10 years ago, it would've been laughed at.

And, in truth, even as Donovan lifted his bib over his head and the crowd stood to applaud his imminent entrance onto the pitch in the 83rd minute of Leon's 2-1 win over Puebla in Estadio Leon, the whole situation still felt slightly surreal.

But as Leon's No. 20 started playing the ball around -- tracking back to win it back and creating a half-chance in the 90th minute -- the fact that 35-year-old Donovan is back from a 15-month retirement and is in Liga MX started to sink in.

The hype surrounding his signing was over. And now he's on the path to proving himself capable of impacting a league widely considered to be better quality than Major League Soccer.

Overall, it was a decent start for Donovan, in as much as one can judge a player based on around 10 minutes of play.

"Offensively, it wasn't great, and defensively, I was running and fighting well, but I have to improve to help the team," Donovan said in Spanish after the game.

"I'm lacking rhythm and repetitions. It's more difficult to play on the pitch in the night than train, and that's why I need rhythm, but it is important that I was able to debut in a win."

The debut was perhaps an anticlimax, but through no fault of the player.

The reality is that the priority for Leon on Saturday night was a victory at all costs. After a 4-0 loss in its last home Liga MX match against Necaxa and a 5-1 thrashing by Monterrey last weekend, coach Gustavo Diaz needed to steady the ship against a tricky Puebla side.

The sparse crowd of around 20,000, the low-key atmosphere and the lack of a real buzz around Saturday's match was squarely down to the team's nosedive over the past couple of weeks. Estadio Leon usually has one of the best atmospheres in Liga MX.

The good news for Diaz was that Leon's players flew out of the starting blocks and went 2-0 up after 21 minutes. There also was a tenacity about the team when La Fiera was forced to hold on near the end with Puebla pushing for an equalizer.

As for Donovan, he needs time.

There was a moment in injury time in which the American leaned over to catch his breath after a sprint down the left wing. Leon's altitude of 1,815 meters (5,955 feet) might not be that of Mexico City (2,250 meters, or 7,382 feet), but it takes an adaptation period of more than a couple of weeks to be able to cope.

Anyone expecting a 35-year-old who was retired to make an immediate and consistent impact is asking too much.

In essence, Donovan pretty much just played the first minutes of his preseason. It was positive, and his passing and movement was sharp, but for the U.S. legend to leave a legacy in his time in Liga MX, he'll first have to be fully fit.

"It's [been] incredible," Donovan said. "From the first day in Leon, the crowd has been very friendly with me, and now I have to give them something on the pitch.

"And I'm going to do it."

Only time will tell if Donovan can rise to the latest and arguably the most difficult challenge of his career.

Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.

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