Robert Mora / LA Galaxy

The Coming Home of Landon Donovan

You can always come home. If you are Landon Donovan, that is.

24 hours ago, LA Galaxy’s head coach Bruce Arena lamented the grueling 3-3 draw at Real Salt Lake’s hallowed Rio Tinto, “We shot ourselves in the foot,” and he and the team swallowed the bitter pill of a draw that felt like a loss with both teams tied in points and RSL edging ahead of LA in the conference standings with 2 more wins. But today, rather than dwelling on that, the eponymous MLS MVP namesake, Landon Donovan, dominated the headlines, receiving the accolades befitting the MLS leader in regular season goals (144) and assists (25) upon his signing on for the remainder of the 2016 season by the team he once helped reach a pinnacle of 5 MLS Cups before retiring at the end of 2014. His resplendent return is in stark contrast to the abrupt departure of Nigel de Jong whose transfer was met with an inglorious video from his former league. While there is no confirmed direct link to the two, and there have been denials by LA Galaxy of pre-planning the timing and nature of the events, along with the money trail are all worth following in the coming days.

In a moving Facebook post this afternoon, Landon penned his apparent motivation for the return, citing the recent injuries of key players (Jelle Van Damme, Steven Gerrard, Gyasi Zardes) and transfer of Nigel De Jong to Galatasaray along with a series of conversations with LA Galaxy staff, players and former coach Bruce Arena as the events that led to his decision.

“Two weeks ago, I was working as an analyst on the LA Galaxy vs. Vancouver Whitecaps match and during that game, the Galaxy suffered injuries to three players: Jelle Van Damme, Steven Gerrard and Gyasi Zardes. Over the next few days, Nigel De Jong was transferred to Galatasaray and news broke that Gyasi would be out for the rest of the season. Since my retirement, I have remained in close contact with many of the staff and players on the Galaxy. I spoke with some of them that week and they jokingly asked if I was ready to make a return to the field to help fill some of the void left by the injuries and departures…”

Donovan’s life over the past 2 years has been packed with opportunities to do much of what professional soccer’s regimented lifestyle once prevented him from doing: from wedding bells, to becoming a father, traveling, moving, lecturing in schools and colleges, coaching the MLS Homegrown team for two consecutive years, being a part of Tab Ramos’ U.S. U-20 MNT World Cup staff, helping launch an outreach youth clinics program called HELM, serving as a studio analyst, being a spokesperson for the Under 35 POTUS Captain Morgan campaign and just last month announcing his intentions to pursue a U.S. Soccer B coaching license. He’s been so busy that whether there’s an overarching plan for the 34-year-old is debatable. About a year ago, he shared some of his thoughts about the future with a sold-out University of Redlands crowd.

“There is no roadmap for retiring at a young age. It’s also the only road I know. Because of that awareness, I’ve tried to prepare myself. You can’t replicate what it’s like to score a goal in front of 50,000 people,” Donovan said. “I have to find other passions that excite me.”

Landon’s unplanned (but forecasted by many) return is another unexpected turn in that unchartered map to fulfillment he’s been traveling. “I’ve always made decisions in life based on two guiding principles: My own happiness and the happiness of those I love and care about. Being on the field again, being able to help an organization that has meant so much to me and having my son in my arms after a game will undoubtedly make me and my loved ones happy. That’s all that matters,” Donovan wrote in his most recent Facebook announcement.

While all of this is wonderful news, there are merely 6 games left in LA Galaxy’s regular season, with a sobering 50% of their matches played ending in draws that cost them points, confidence and at times, left players injured and overworked. Landon’s intuitive ability to connect with players both on and off the pitch is something the team could use at this time. But, even with his official first practice being this Friday, understandable doubts remain about his fitness level and intentions for the next year. There are many who would love to see him fill the open Designated Player spot upon Steven Gerrard’s departure, but it seems like Donovan’s plans are still up in the air and Robbie Keane’s role may also be in flux. “[It will be] interesting how, or if, this will impact Robbie Keane, who wants to return for next season. The club has not met his request for a new contract,” L.A. Times’ Kevin Baxter points out. “If Keane and Gerrard are really iffy for the rest of the way, a half-speed Landon Donovan is a huge upgrade over Alan Gordan, Sebastian Lletget, and Mike Magee.”

The attacking power boost the addition of Donovan will bring to the Galaxy will likely be manifested as assists and passes  (rather than goals) and in helping tease out the full potential of the new number 10, Giovani dos Santos, who tends to run hot and cold in MLS league play. “I still think Landon Donovan can play at a high level in this league,” Grant Wahl shared in a Facebook Live chat. “I don’t think you lose the vision just because you’ve been away from the game for a few years.” Yes, everyone wants to see Donovan link up with Ashley Cole, Steven Gerrard, Giovani dos Santos, Jelle Van Damme and the usual suspects, but seeing how he fits in with the younger players will also be enlightening. Players like Mendiola, Lletget and Boateng have all earned their place in the starting lineup and this more mature Donovan may be able to bridge them all together without stealing all the limelight.

The Galaxy are often criticized by detractors for finding loopholes in league restrictions.  The signing of Donovan as their third free agent was confirmed by LA Galaxy President Chris Klein today. Some fans and journalists have cited a regulation for free agent signings in the offseason market as limiting teams to 2 free agents. But this isn’t the offseason. The timing of Nigel De Jong’s transfer is uniquely fortuitous at best, or deliberately contrived at worst. On the one hand, Landon’s Facebook page claims the idea came as a joke at first, on the other, Arena revealed to reporters Thursday morning that he was the instigator. Either way, both sides are coming out as winners. Recently dismayed fans will flock to matches and LA may play their way to their sixth MLS Cup if all goes according to plan. “I care so deeply about the Galaxy organization, and I believe I could help in a small way to aid the team in its quest for a sixth MLS championship,” Donovan posted.

Landon is living life on his terms. “People change their minds. People go through different stages of life,” Grant Wahl concludes when questioned about Landon’s LegenDary farewell tour.

Whether it is for six games or more, fans have a second chance to relish seeing their American soccer star, a player who defined U.S. soccer for a generation, hit the pitch running. The sometimes overly cerebral Donovan has likely thought this one out more than his Facebook post leads one to believe. Whether as a coach for kids, adults, in training for licensing, as a commentator or guest lecturer, soccer has been on his mind and in his heart. Although in the tail end of his career as a player, he experienced and admitted to being burned out and missing out on life, this is the smartest choice he could have made. “If Landon isn’t able to contribute, I don’t think it changes our world. And if he is, it does change our world a little bit,” Bruce Arena comments with a smile.

“I think anytime people step away from something they love and realize how fortunate they were and still have that burning desire to get back into it again, I think that’s a plus, but obviously there are a lot of challenges ahead here. There’s no guarantees. But I think he’s much more balanced now than he’s been in recent years to play and contribute and have a good feel for where he’s at in his life. I think he comes into this with joy. I think when he left two years ago, this was not fun,” Arena concludes.

A taste of the pitch is a safe bet for both the Galaxy and their shining star.