Landon Donovan to Leon captures imagination but poses questions
The reaction in Mexico to the news Landon Donovan would be joining Liga MX's Club Leon on a year's deal was initially one of bemusement.
The story had originally surfaced as a rumor on Wednesday but with no real momentum. There were denials from journalists and warnings that it was a hoax. And when Club Leon used the "stars and stripes" metaphor to announce a new striped home jersey, everything pointed to La Fiera playing off the rumor to garner attention and generate press.
The marketing gimmick seemed to work. Leon captured headlines in a way that the institution -- not one of Liga MX's biggest -- isn't accustomed to. But just as the story was losing its force came the almost surreal twist late on Friday: Donovan, 35, was actually signing with the club.
He said: "I loved the city. (Leon) has the best fans. Club Leon is a historic and winning team. I don't believe in walls, I want to go to Mexico, wear green and win trophies with Leon. See you very soon!"
The signing naturally conjured strong opinions. Donovan is perhaps the last U.S. international to really stoke true feelings of contempt among Mexico fans, an animosity built up over the years mainly due to the California native's success against El Tri, especially at the 2002 World Cup. But underneath it is a level of respect. Donovan speaks Spanish and was the star of a commercial that went viral back in 2010, with "Captain America" dressing up and attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border to get into Mexico in order to play a lottery.
Watching Donovan in his latest comeback in Mexico will certainly be entertaining and will capture attention both sides of the border. It will also provide a sense of completion, with Donovan close to moving to Club America in 2009 and always right at the top of the list of players that could add so much to Liga MX. Yet there are also legitimate concerns about whether Donovan, who will wear the No. 20 jersey, will be able to get up to speed and then have an impact.
"If the idea is that people talk about Leon, they've achieved it," said former Leon vice president and current ESPN analyst, Francisco Gabriel de Anda. "In the football sense, Landon Donovan will bring nothing to Leon."
Donovan originally retired in 2014, but came back to help LA Galaxy during an injury crisis midway through the 2016 MLS season, playing nine games overall. That means Donovan has played just 456 competitive first division minutes over the past three years. Getting back to full fitness will be a chore, never mind reaching a level of play to impact a league with better overall quality than MLS.
Former U.S. international and now ESPN analyst Herculez Gomez, however, is backing Donovan to succeed.
He said: "Landon Donovan will turn 36 in a few months, but while he is good physically, he will do well. On-field intelligence he has in spades."
The American joins a team that won its opening 2018 Clausura match 2-1 last weekend against Atlas and is expected to be in the playoff race under coach Gustavo Diaz. The front three of Elias Hernandez, Mauro Boselli and Andres Andrade is fairly established, with Luis Montes slotting in behind: a position Donovan could occupy. Montes, an important player for Leon over recent years, could even drop back alongside Alexander Mejia in central midfield.
This is the latest twist in Donovan's remarkable career. But even with the challenges he's overcome and achievements earned so far, coming out of retirement for the second time and making an impact in Liga MX 2018 at the age of 35 would have to be right up near the top of his accomplishments.
That said, if Donovan's career teaches you anything, it is that you shouldn't bet against "Captain America" succeeding against the odds.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.