Landon Donovan's Sudden MLS Comeback Is a Shocker, but It's Not a Stunt

Noah Davis@noahedavisContributing Soccer WriterSeptember 9, 2016

Landon Donovan has come out of retirement to join the Los Angeles Galaxy. The last time we saw him with the Galaxy, he was celebrating victory in the 2014 MLS Cup.
Landon Donovan has come out of retirement to join the Los Angeles Galaxy. The last time we saw him with the Galaxy, he was celebrating victory in the 2014 MLS Cup.Robert Laberge/Getty Images

Landon Donovan never let anyone else write his story.

He remained in Major League Soccer when many in the American soccer community wanted him to challenge himself in Europe. He took a sabbatical from the U.S. men's national team because he needed a break, a decision that hurt his chance to make the 2014 World Cup roster. He's been outspoken about issues within the sport he played so well, in addition to talking openly and honestly about his personal battles with mental health.

At the end of 2014, he walked away from MLS—a league he played a large role in helping grow—on his own terms, well before he was physically unable to compete. In doing so, he left millions of dollars on the table but found peace.

He appeared to have moved into the next phase of his life, settling down and having a baby boy with his wife, buying a stake in English Premier League club Swansea City and turning up to coach the Chipotle MLS Homegrown team during the last two All-Star weekends.

Donovan and his wife, Hannah Bartell, had a son, Talon, earlier this year.
Donovan and his wife, Hannah Bartell, had a son, Talon, earlier this year.Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Thursday's news that Donovan is coming out of retirement to join the Los Angeles Galaxy for the remainder of the season is shocking, even considering the Californian's penchant for surprising decisions. He'll rejoin Bruce Arena's squad, one that sits tied for second in the Western Conference, comfortably in the playoffs but certainly not the favorite to take home the MLS Cup.

They have plenty of attacking talent in Giovani dos Santos, Robbie Keane, Mike Magee and others, but injuries—including a season-ending one to Gyasi Zardes—mean there's a spot for a player like Donovan.

It's an open question how much impact the league's all-time leading goal-scorer and assist-getter will have when he returns to the field. He hasn't played a competitive game since December 7, 2014, the day he hoisted his sixth MLS Cup. Twenty-one months is a long layoff for any player, much less one who's in his mid-30s.

In his later years, Donovan didn't rely on his once-blazing speed as much and was an underrated passer, both facts in favor of him succeeding, but he'll still need time to catch up to the pace of the pro gameif he can catch up at all. Will he destroy opponents as effortlessly as he once did? No. But he wouldn't come back if he didn't know, or at least think, that he could compete.

For the Galaxy, it's a win-win situation. Given the Byzantine structure of MLS salaries, we'll probably never know what Donovan is getting paid, but the club has money from its recent transfer of Nigel de Jong to Galatasaray in the Turkish Super Lig. (Has a team ever jettisoned a player as despised by the rest of the league and then immediately brought in one as loved?)

If Donovan excels, great. If he doesn't, they still have one of the better squads in MLS, an excellent coach and owners willing to spend again next season. At the very least, they'll get a promotional boost—not something that will be overlooked by the organization that's desperate to be seen as the league's biggest and brightest franchise—and sell loads of Donovan jerseys.

The L.A. Galaxy have nothing to lose in bringing on Donovan in the middle of this season. And don't be surprised if they have him next season, too.
The L.A. Galaxy have nothing to lose in bringing on Donovan in the middle of this season. And don't be surprised if they have him next season, too.Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

Remove this specific player's name from the back of his jersey, and this is nothing more than a pragmatic move. There's a team in need, a familiar player slipping back into a comfortable role and little risk for anyone involved. But because it's Landon Donovan, the best player in the history of American soccer, it becomes bigger. And, frankly, it should.

When Donovan walked away, it wasn't because he was injured, tired of rehabbing or any of the other physical reasons athletes give for retiring sooner than expected. He was, after nearly two decades of playing soccer constantly and consistently at high levels while serving as the sometimes reluctant face of the league and the national team, burnt out.

Now, after a needed break from the spotlight, he's ready to return, to see what he has left. When he takes the field, possibly as soon as this weekend against Orlando City, he'll be just the 29th-oldest player to do so in MLS this year. The tank isn't full, but it's been partially refilled.

While, for now, Donovan is only signed through the remainder of this season, it's not hard to see him turning this cameo into a starring role next year. Would he bother to come back if that thought wasn't at least in his mind? Returning for just two months amounts to a great deal of physical stress for a relatively small reward. More likely, he'll treat the final six games of the season and the ensuing playoffs as a trial run.

Has the passion to play full-time really returned? Does his body hold up during the training, matches and frequent cross-country flights? Is he OK being away from nine-month-old baby Talon? If the answer to enough of those questions is "yes," don't be surprised if he's on Team Galaxy to start the 2017 season.

It's hard to see Donovan's MLS comeback translating to a comeback for Jurgen Klinsmann's U.S. national team, for a variety of reasons.
It's hard to see Donovan's MLS comeback translating to a comeback for Jurgen Klinsmann's U.S. national team, for a variety of reasons.TIMOTHY CLARY/Getty Images

More tenuous is Donovan's return to the United States national team. It won't happen, not for the team's upcoming friendlies in October or the start of the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying in November or ever again.

It's goes beyond the fact that his relationship with head coach Jurgen Klinsmann is almost certainly fractured beyond repair. The American team is moving beyond Donovan's generation of players. The future of the attack is Jozy Altidore, Bobby Wood, Jordan Morris, Darlington Nagbe, Zardes and other 20-somethings (and, yes, teenager Christian Pulisic), not nearly 35-year-old Donovan and his brethren.

Even if he could make a difference now, it doesn't make sense to bring Donovan along in the context of where the U.S. team is headed as a unit. And he might not even want to return, content to spare his aging body the wear and tear that international duty adds.

Donovan's comeback tour isn't about altering his legacy in any way or about adding the bit of gravitas that another couple of international appearances would bring. He's already cemented that reputation. This move, like all the other decisions in his past, is about a smart, complex individual making the choice he wanted to make.

On Thursday, Donovan's long path through the highest echelons of American soccer took one more surprising turn. Wherever this latest road ends, don't say he didn't pick his own way.

        

Noah Davis (@noahedavis) is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York. He's written for outlets including the New Yorker, the New York Times, and GQ. Find his work at Noahedavis.com.