Landon Donovan has always had a complicated relationship with soccer. It was the source of so much joy for him, but also of so much pressure. He struggled with depression at times. The grind wore on him. So much so that the final few years of his career were interrupted by sabbatical and short-lived retirement.
Or, rather, have been interrupted by sabbatical and short-lived retirement. Short-lived retirements, in fact. Plural.
Apparently the joy has drawn Donovan back. The 35-year-old stunned the North American soccer world late Friday night with the news that he was coming out of retirement again, and this time embarking on a new journey. The most accomplished American outfield player ever is off to Mexico.
He has signed with Club Leon one week into the 2018 Liga MX Clausura. The player referred to by many Mexican fans as “Captain America” – and a player who on so many occasions was public enemy No. 1 south of the border – will make a remarkable return to professional soccer with the seven-time Mexican champions.
— Club León (@clubleonfc) January 13, 2018
Donovan, who has worked as an analyst for Fox Sports during retirement, announced his return on Twitter after spending a few days in Leon. He responded to the club’s president with a message in Spanish: “I love the city. … 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!”
Presidente: me encantó la Ciudad. Es la mejor afición. @clubleonfc es un equipo histórico y ganador. No creo en los muros, quiero ir a México, vestirme de verde y ganar trofeos con León. Nos vemos muy pronto! https://t.co/Xqm4jX2hW7
— Landon Donovan (@landondonovan) January 13, 2018
Donovan last played professional soccer in 2016. He had initially retired after the 2014 MLS season, but came out of retirement to re-join the Los Angeles Galaxy in September of 2016. He re-announced his retirement at the end of the Galaxy’s 2016 playoff run. Now he’s back again.
Recently, Donovan had considered running for U.S. Soccer president. He decided against it, but told Sports Illustrated he wanted to be involved with U.S. Soccer going forward. That was presumably before he began discussing another comeback with Leon.
Donovan’s first comeback, for just a few months to the club with which he had rode off into the sunset, was unexpected but logical. The Galaxy needed reinforcements. Donovan was still only 34, and had long-standing relationships with many at the club. He had won four MLS Cups in Los Angeles, and three this decade. That move, after the shock value wore off, made sense.
This one really doesn’t. And it creates all kinds of quirks. For one, it means the MLS MVP trophy is now named after an active Liga MX player. And it means the player who was celebrated as MLS’ greatest ever upon his retirement won’t actually end his career in the league.
It does, of course, make sense from a marketing and news-making point of view. Donovan is easily the American player most well-known in Mexico. That’s in part because he scored several famous goals against El Tri. Most notably, he tallied in the U.S.’s famous 2002 World Cup Round of 16 victory over its rival. Eleven years later, he scored his final international goal against Mexico in Columbus to clinch World Cup qualification for the Yanks.
It’s probably unfair to call his second return a stunt. He’ll presumably compete for minutes with Leon, and once he recoups some match fitness, he could feature regularly. That said, more than anything else, it just feels strange.
And the worst part: We won’t even get the Donovan vs. Rafa Marquez showdown we all crave. Leon and Atlas already played on the Clausura’s opening weekend. Leon won 2-1. It plays again Saturday night against Toluca (8 p.m. ET, ESPN Deportes/ESPN3).
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