For many, he is among the most recognizable faces in United States soccer history, if not the most recognizable. But for all the thrills Landon Donovan has provided fans of his club sides and the men’s national team over the years, there have been a comparable number of irritations.
His self-imposed exile from the sport, over which he was supposedly brooding long before the MLS Cup final against Houston last December, can be chalked up in the latter category.
For several months Donovan left both Los Angeles Galaxy and the national setup in the dark regarding his plans while taking a Brett Favre-style sabbatical, and while Galaxy provided a hint as to his return in statements made Sunday, the 30-year-old’s timetable is a convenience to no one but himself. Galaxy general manager and head coach Bruce Arena told the Major League Soccer side’s official website:
After a series of collaborative discussions between Landon, his representatives and our key club leaders, we have agreed to allow Landon to remain on an extended leave of absence and return to training with the team during the first week of March.
He added, “We understand this arrangement is not ideal, but we are confident it will allow Landon the time he needs to be both mentally and physically prepared for the upcoming season.”
Not ideal, but so typically Donovan.
Here is a player who, for the entirety of his career, has borne the weight of expectation on his shoulders—both as a leader for the United States national team and as one of the country’s most promising exports to Europe. And while the dual burden has left him admittedly tired (in November he told the LA Times he was “worn out” from the “expectations”), that doesn’t detract from the rights of fans, teammates and coaches to keep expecting—if not consistent play at a high level, then clarity regarding his agenda.
That clarity, despite Galaxy’s Sunday statement, has still not come, and after Monday training Arena’s remarks to the press were pregnant with frustration.
“For whatever reason [Donovan] feels physically and mentally fatigued and needs some time off,” he told the Times.
Donovan himself has admitted struggling with mental strength—notably self-motivation—frequently during his career. In an October interview with ESPN he revealed he had routinely “struggled with motivation,” saying there were “times when it all came easily,” and others when it didn’t.
None of this will come as news to anyone who saw him try to break through in the Bundesliga between 2001 and 2009.
Donovan’s own website says he found life in Germany “much harder than expected” after making the move and, despite being given every chance by Bayer Leverkusen, just “wasn’t enjoying the experience.” He was “unhappy and not fully committed to his new German team.” Eight years later at Bayern Munich the situation repeated itself, and the Bavarian giants opted not to extend his loan from Los Angeles.
Donovan’s failed attempt at establishing a long-term career in European football is worth mentioning for two reasons.
One: It foreshadowed his current situation, which is once again down to a lack of motivation as much of anything else. Two: It served to exasperate and even embarrass a section of the American soccer establishment that had expected the IMG Academy graduate to make it big across the pond.
But Donovan wilted under the pressure, and even though he played some of the best football of his career upon returning to Southern California, there were still those who remained ashamed of him. His dithering of the past few months will have done nothing to restore his dignity in their eyes.
When Donovan finally does make his return (at this point likely in early April), Galaxy will have played both legs of its CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal against Costa Rican champions Herediano, and the United States, with late-March matches against Mexico and Costa Rica, could well find itself facing an uphill battle to qualify for the 2014 World Cup.
Much of the goodwill he still maintains among many fans may well have evaporated by then, especially if he doesn’t address them, and the reasons behind his absence, directly.
In the meantime, he has already lost something.
“Obviously Landon’s not going to be the captain,” Arena told the Times. “He’s not here.”